There's nothing subtle about the idea of two former slaves and their former master creating a makeshift Passover meal as the Civil War is ending. Given that premise, you could probably scribble down reasonable guesses at some of the major plot points and dramatic moments that follow…and odds are you'll get many of them right.
But tempered with subtle, nuanced performance by its trio of actors, a remarkably well-paced script from playwright Matthew Lopez, direction that allows time for the complex emotions to percolate, and design that's gorgeous and sad, the Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of "The Whipping Man"—is sublime, easily the best show so far in the IRT season.
"The Whipping Man" opens with a wounded Confederate soldier returning home just after the end of the war. Family gone and house nearly destroyed, he must rely on the care of two former slaves, both of whom embraced the family's Jewish faith. But how do religious ties hold up in a world where shackles held people in place? If all men are brothers…well, are all men brothers? And, if so, what do you do when the brother who once owned you now needs you to save his life?
I really don't want to tell you more because one of the rare pleasures in theater these days is finding a plot that unfolds with unforced but perspective-shifting revelations. I'm not talking about curve-throwing gimmicks but, rather, information that, when released changes how you think about the characters. Lopez' play is a master class in structure but never feels like it's going by the book. It's a joy to be in a lobby at intermission with an audience that can't wait to find out what happens next to characters they care about.
Of course, credit must go to the actors as well. Andrew C. Ahrens has done solid work at the IRT in the past, but I never found him to be “sticky” actor. By that I mean one who you remember, clearly, months later. That may change for me after "The Whipping Man," where his soldier, damaged inside and out, holds the stage with limited movement. David Alan Anderson offers his usual gravitas but knows how to make us see his thought process as he digest new information and wrestles with what his new-found freedom means. Rounding out the cast, Tyler Jacob Rollinson, reads more contemporary, but nonetheless delivers.