Thundering lightening flashes, illuminating a once grand Virginian home now ravaged by war. Looters have left the rooms empty, and shards of glass are all that remain of the elaborate windowpanes. As the savage wind howls through the ghostly birches outside, a wounded Confederate soldier stumbles in, collapsing on the foyer floor.

Families are ripped apart and beliefs challenged in Matthew Lopez’s riveting Civil War drama, “The Whipping Man,” now being performed at Portland Stage.

The war is over and Caleb, played by Tom White, returns to Richmond to find his family has fled. Only their long-time servant Simon, played by Ray Anthony Thomas, remains to watch over the ruins of the family home.

Caleb’s horse drops dead on the doorstep, and Caleb musters all his remaining strength to get inside. He is delirious with fever and his right leg is putrid with gangrene from an infected gunshot wound.

When Caleb refuses to go to the hospital for treatment, Simon is forced to perform a below-the-knee amputation. Another former servant, John (Brooks Brantley), returns home just in time to assist with the gruesome surgery.

Portland Stage does an excellent job with realistic wound makeup and a cleverly placed bandage that gives the illusion that White’s leg has actually been amputated. Rather than showing the gore of the surgery, the stage fades to black with the first cut of the saw. The actors’ voices rise out of the darkness in gospel song, providing an emotional punch.

Emotions run high as each character’s story unfolds onstage, revealing hidden truths and pent-up feelings.

“I could put what I know into what you don’t know and still have room for more,” Simon tells John, who is cavalierly surviving by “liberating” belongings and alcohol from neighboring homes.

Debates over slavery, freedom and personal worth bubble to the surface while characters struggle to reconcile their faith with the war and its aftermath.

Caleb’s devout family indoctrinated their slaves in the Jewish faith, but Caleb’s faith was rocked by the horrors he witnessed at the battle of Petersburg.

Portland Stage’s cast, under the direction of Jade King Carroll, paints a realistic and poignant picture of life in the south during the Civil War, from the point of view of three strongly portrayed characters.

White brings the plight of a Confederate soldier to the stage, allowing the audience to witness not only Caleb’s physical pain, but also feel his inner conflict and turmoil.

Brantley and Thomas artfully allow the audience to view the Civil War from the perspective of two former slaves with very different philosophies about life and freedom.

Portland Stage’s cast nicely captures the gray area between master and slave.

“The Whipping Man” is a dialogue-intense production filled with thought-provoking issues, an emotionally gripping story and surprising plot twists. Portland Stage’s cast breathes life into Lopez’s fascinating play.

And, the theater’s production team vividly stirs the imagination with a striking set and realistic special effects.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. Contact her at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @ahboyle

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