Suspense drives drama in ‘The Whipping Man’

The dark, somber and desolate stage of the Globe’s West Coast Premiere of “The Whipping Man” is immediately brought to life when Caleb (Mark J. Sullivan) enters the shattered door of his family’s now destroyed Southern plantation home. It’s just another blow that Caleb faces as he struggles to get down the stairs on one leg; his other was severely damaged in a Civil War battle.

Instantly staring down the nose of a rifle, once again Caleb fears for his life. He and his assailant enter into a shouting match until Caleb recognizes the voice of Simon (Charlie Robinson), his family’s former slave — now a free man.

This fact doesn’t register with Caleb at first as he orders Simon to bring him some water. There’s hesitancy in Simon’s demeanor as the impact of the demand settles in, yet gives way to the fact he’s known this boy since he was a young lad. Simon tells him things are different now, but dutifully brings Caleb the water.

Playwright Matthew Lopez’s captivating story reveals how three men — lifelong inhabitants of the same house — find themselves on new ground just days after the Civil War ends. Caleb faces losing his leg, but he’s unsure of where his family is and can’t bear that his home is ravaged and empty. Simon is excited by his Lincoln-given freedom and waiting for the right time to head North.

Then John (Avery Glymph), another of the house servants, comes in, running from someone who’s chasing him because he stole something. The three men, all with different outlooks on their situations, spend each moment in a poker-hand face-off. Should they help one another? Or look out for themselves? Caleb is in no condition to do that, but his cantankerous attitude does not lend itself to others wanting to stick around.

But there’s one thing that brings these men together, even if only for a momentary connection: They are all Jewish.

Caleb’s family taught its slaves the Jewish faith, and now it’s time for Seder, the first night of Passover. Gathering whatever they can to resemble the traditional elements of the dinner, the three men make peace for a short while. Soon the dark clouds of uncertainty return, and each man in this empty house must find his own way to refill his now vacant life.

All three actors provide wonderful performances. Sullivan (“To Be or Not to Be,” “The Dining Room”) probably has the hardest task staying on a blanket on the barren floor throughout the play. Yet as Caleb, he manages to offer a glimpse of his former life.

Glymph (“The Tempest,” “Fences”) is the ticking clock in this drama. His John has an agenda, but because he can’t see outside his own plan, he’s unable to forge a steady path toward it. Instead, he’s full of anger, disillusionment, and one setback after another. His unwillingness to forgive and forget is at times frightening and keeps the audience in constant suspense.

Robinson (“The Piano Lesson,” “Night Court,” “Antwone Fisher”) instills in Simon an awareness of what is really happening.

He tries to make Caleb and John understand that not all is lost. Yet deep emotional and psychological scars will have to be healed before that happens, and just when Simon thinks he’s ready to move on, more deep secrets and scars surface for this trio.

‘The Whipping Man’

  • Where: The Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
  • When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays, through June 13
  • Tickets: $29-$62; (619) 23-GLOBE,