Geva serves up a rich Seder with 'The Whipping Man'

05:00 AM, Mar 31, 2013

Andrew C. Ahrens, David Alan Anderson and Tyler Jacob Rollinson star in 'The Whipping Man.' (ZACH ROSING/Indiana Repertory Theatre)/

Written By Leah Stacy

If you go

The Whipping Man.
When: Previews are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday (open-captioned performance). Opening night is 8 p.m. Saturday, with performances through April 28.
Where: Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Blvd.
Cost: Tickets start at $25.
For tickets: (585) 232-4382 or

As a timely follow-up to Passover season, Geva Theatre’s newest play aims to start a communal conversation about faith and family.

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez opens for previews on the Wilson Mainstage on Tuesday (the last day of Passover). The play begins at the surrender of Appomattox and follows the journey of a Confederate Jewish soldier as he returns home after the Civil War. He arrives to find two of the family’s emancipated slaves and together, all three must reconcile with the newfound freedom.

The plot may sound like it’s been done before, but Tom Ocel, the play’s director, pointed out that the play’s most prominent difference is its question of faith.

The big conflict is that the family is Jewish, including the slaves,” he said. “You can’t be both, according to Jewish law.”

Combining elements of Civil War history and traditional Jewish practices like Seder (the traditional Jewish feast that marks the beginning of Passover) meant the cast and crew — none of whom are Jewish — had significant research to do in three short weeks of rehearsal.

We had questions about Jewish law, tradition and the Seder ceremony itself since it’s not a temple ceremony, it’s a home ceremony,” Ocel says. “What happens in the play’s Seder and how does that parallel what’s supposed to happen? How are (the characters) making it their own?”

The three-person cast features Andrew C. Ahrens as Jewish Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon, Tyler Jacob Rollinson as a former slave named John, and David Alan Anderson as former slave Simon. Anderson, who was last seen in Geva’s Gem of the Ocean, says they spent three days of rehearsal just discussing the play’s themes.

With a short rehearsal period we usually spend less time talking about the script — we spent more time for this,” he says. “We were trying to understand the author’s intent and how it parallels the era, juxtaposed against how it relates to us now, because that helps the audience connect.”

The play comes to Rochester as a co-production with Indiana Repertory Theatre. After experiencing a pre-Passover Seder dinner held by Janet Allen, the artistic director of the Indiana theater, during the rehearsal period, Ocel and Anderson felt a lot of the play’s conversations became more aligned.

In the middle of the Seder ritual you have a meal, which is so communal,” Ocel says. “I grew up Catholic, and it felt like we were all kind of in our own little world — there wasn’t a sense of ‘We’re all here for fellowship.’ We were there to observe Mass, rather than partake. I’m not religious, but I felt like I was partaking, and I loved that.”

For Anderson, the experience was highly personal.

It was the fact that this family shared its faith with us — which is something that they hold dearest,” he says. “If you’re Muslim or Buddhist or anything and you share with me when I’m not, that’s a huge thing, and it was very emotional for me.”

Lopez won a John Gassner Playwriting Award from the Outer Critic Circle for The Whipping Man, which debuted in 2006.

The play is being performed in at least 12 regional theaters this year, and Ocel feels that together they form a conversation, even though each might have different elements, such as the joint Indiana-Geva production’s addition of an original composition from Gregg Coffin, who wrote Five Course Love.

Like Seder, I think all these productions are partaking in this conversation,” he said. “Where are we now, how are we talking to each other, is it about how we’re the same or how we’re different? It’s about all of that. Embrace all of those things, because ultimately we’re all individuals and we’re all different. So let’s shake hands on that.”