“The Whipping Man” runs March 8-April 7 in the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage.
In the past year Alexander Greenfield directed at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, assistant directed Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at Manhattan Theatre Club and Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca on Broadway, and helped stage Glengarry Glen Ross with an Irish cast at Dublin’s storied Gate Theatre. Along the way he was nominated for a Suzi Bass Award, Atlanta’s theater honors, for his direction of Sweeney Todd at Fabrefaction Theatre.
The Atlanta-raised, New York-based director, accomplished at only 25, is home again for The Whipping Man, a crackling three-actor drama set at the close of the Civil War. While here he’s hoping to reconnect with old friends, including staffers at 7 Stages, where an even younger Greenfield once interned.
He’s “had a crush on” The Whipping Man since first encountering the script in the fall of 2010, he says. “I thought, my God, this play would be unbelievable in Atlanta.”
Apparently, Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth was thinking the same thing.
The Whipping Man opens in April 1865 when a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier returns to find his Virginia home vacated, in ruins and occupied by two of his former slaves. Eventually they celebrate a Seder together. (The Passover holiday in 1865 actually began the day after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.)
That playwright Matthew Lopez, who’s in his 30s, is neither African-American or Jewish — he’s a self-described “foxhole Episcopalian” from Florida with Puerto Rican and Polish-Russian heritage — just stirs the pot of his play’s universality.
The Whipping Man is, in fact, one of the most popular titles at regional theaters this season, with 14 productions at companies from Louisville to Skokie, Ill., Rochester, N.Y., to Portland, Ore., and in Toronto.
In Atlanta, Greenfield says, the script speaks to the ongoing evolution of the city’s identity, as it would in any former Confederate place but particularly the adopted hometown of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Whipping Man should play well here, he says, because it doesn’t seek to condemn or judge in any way. Each character is flawed and human in equal proportion.
“It simultaneously wades through issues as thick as what does it mean to be free? What are the responsibilities of that? Can you love, or be friends with, someone you own or have societal advantages over? What is the power of faith? It gets into all these big things,but it drives forward in action.”
He calls The Whipping Man a “new-fashioned melodrama” because it’s full of secrets and risk and danger. You, as the audience, will be “in” on some of the secrets; others will be news to you as they are to the characters onstage.
“Our job,” Greenfield says, “is to just tell the story. Our hope it that it will be embraced. There is a safety net in the fact that it’s a great play.”
Kathy Janich, Encore Atlanta’s managing editor, has been seeing, covering or working in the performing arts for most of her life. Please email: email@example.com.