2014 True West Award: Cast of 'The Whipping Man'




Audiences are never meant to know the obstacles a production tackles on its often rocky road to Opening Night. Any piece must be considered on its ultimate and evident merit. But in the case of The Whipping Man, we knew: A press release was issued less than a week before Curious Theatre’s highly anticipated Civil War drama was to bow announcing that multiple award-winning actor Cajardo Lindsey would be stepping into the central role of Simon, an elderly slave who has spent his entire life in service to a wealthy Jewish Confederate family in Virginia. This could not be good: Lindsey was at least 35 years too young for the part. Plus, it had been previously announced that area veteran Russell Costen would be playing the role. And it wasn’t good. Costen was having health issues, and would soon after be diagnosed with lung cancer that would require surgery and a six-week stay in a V.A. Hospital. So, ready or not, Lindsey was the man. The 70-year-old man. On six days’ notice.  

You may already know the end of the story: The Whipping Man turned out to be one of Curious’ “Curious-of-old” productions. You’ve heard the company’s ubiquitous catchphrase: “No Guts, No Story.” The Whipping Man had guts. Almost literally: I mean, we watched a leg get sawed off in the first scene.

Lindsey wasn’t just good. He became the core of a powerful staging that went on to win eight Colorado Theatre Guild Awards. To fully appreciate that feat, consider this: A drama with no female actors is only eligible for consideration in nine categories.

This was a production that soared on every level, including scenic design and costumes (both Markas Henry), lighting (Shannon McKinney), sound (Brian Freeland) and direction (Kate Folkins and Chip Walton). The best you might fairly expect out of an ensemble of three actors on six days of rehearsal might be that they all say the right words, and that they not run into each other on the stage. Instead, you would have no idea this show very nearly fell like Richmond. And for that, salutations go out to actors Lindsey, Laurence Curry and Sean Scrutchins.

The Whipping Man is ending its second straight year on the list of the 10 most-produced plays in America, but Curious was the first to snag it for Denver. Astonishingly, it was written by Matthew Lopez, who also penned the heartfelt comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride, which was enjoying its world premiere at the DCPA at the same time The Whipping Man was being presented at Curious.

It opens in the tattered remains of a Virginia estate immediately after the south’s surrender. Scrutchins played a badly wounded Jewish soldier named Caleb who returns home to discover his family has fled to safety. All who remain to help him in his desperate medical condition are two of his former slaves: Simon (Lindsey) and John (Curry). Because Caleb’s family was Jewish, their slaves were inculcated into the religion as well, which both now consider a great gift.

The play takes its most compelling turn when the men realize they have missed the beginning of Passover in the prevailing chaos of the war’s end. So they hold a makeshift Seder that makes plain the unresolved hypocrisies of their shared American histories. Jews, after all, hold the Seder to celebrate their exodus from slavery in Ancient Egypt. Now here in Virginia, southern descendants of those same slaves have grown rich from owning slaves themselves. And now, a new kind of exodus is happening all around poor, gangrened Caleb. It’s payback time. Or is it?

This an unexpectedly human play doesn’t work without three actors at the top of their craft. Lindsey (who recently appeared in the DCPA Theatre Company’s Just Like Us) not only overcame the physical contradiction between actor and character, he fully transformed into Simon and had us feeling the weight of his burdens down to our bones. Scrutchins, who can hop between comedic and gut-scraping roles with disarming ease, made us feel both empathetic and necessarily put off by Caleb’s stubborn adherence to his innate, pillaged privilege. And Curry is, simply, an actor who never lets you see him act. He’s just that natural on the stage. As John, Curry was a fully disciplined firecracker who was always in control – and never let you know it. He was a joker, a roach, a smoldering ember and the raging conscience of a most remarkable production. 

The Whipping Man reunited Curry and Lindsey from their equally astonishing turns in 2013’s The Brothers Size. And because Curious has now committed to staging Tarell Alvin McCraney’s complete Brother/Sister Trilogy, we can look forward to seeing them together again in the regional premiere of In The Red And Brown Water, opening March 7.
And again for a reprise of The Brothers Size from July 11-Aug. 15.

1: Norrell Moore
2. Kate Gleason
3. Amanda Berg Wilson and Jeremy Make
4. Ben Cowhick
5. Robert Michael Sanders
6. David Nehls
7. Adrian Egolf
8. Emma Messenger
9. Buntport’s Naughty Bits
10. Tim Howard
11. Gleason Bauer
12. Daniel Traylor
13. Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan
14. Cast of ‘The Whipping Man’
15. Rick Yaconis
16. Michael R. Duran
17. Laura Norman
18. Jacquie Jo Billings
19. Megan Van De Hey
20. Jeremy Palmer
21. Henry Lowenstein   
22. Sam Gregory
23. Wendy Ishii
24. J. Michael Finley
25. Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers
26. Matthew D. Peters
27. Shannan Steele
28. Ludlow, 1914
29. Spring Awakening and Annapurna
30 Theatre Person of the Year Steve Wilson

The True West Awards, which began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001, are the longest-running continuously administered awards program in Colorado theater. This year, the awards have been re-conceived to simply recognize 30 award-worthy achievements in local theatre, without categories or nominations. A different honoree will be singled out each day for 30 days.

The True West Awards are administered by arts journalist John Moore, who was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since founded The Denver Actors Fund and taken a groundbreaking position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist.

*The DCPA Theatre Company is not considered for True West Awards, which are instead intended as the DCPA’s celebration of the local theatre community.

Moore’s daily coverage of the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

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