The location is a bombed out mansion in Virginia, after the Confederate surrender. The conversation is between two men: a former slave, well into middle age, and a young rebel soldier, who’s had a bullet in his leg for a week. Gangrene has set in, and the former slave tells his former master the rotting leg must go. The former master – used to having the final word -- can’t accept what he’s hearing.
Caleb. Are you asking me to chop off my leg, or are you telling me.
Simon. I’m telling you.
Caleb. If you’re giving orders, I’m giving orders. Does that sound fair to you?
Simon. Fair enough for now.
Then the former slave lays it out.
Simon: We don’t cut that leg off at the knee, the gangrene gonna keep climbin’ right on up, hurtin every inch as it goes. It’s gonna pass through your privates. They gonna fall off like ripe apples on a tree. There’s gonna be a big hole where your Tommy Johnson used to be. It’s gonna eat away at your stomach, your liver, your kidneys. It’s gonna crawl right up to your heart and turn it black.
So the necessary thing is done, using whiskey as both anaesthetic and antiseptic.
Caleb. Simon, I don’t want you to do this…
Simon. Don’t got no choice, Caleb. You’re gonna die if we don’t.
Caleb. I’ll take my chances…
It’s actually less gory than many horror films. But because it’s happening live in front of you, with flesh and blood people, it’s intense.
And that’s what this play does. Scene after scene, it puts you in the shoes of folks living with the dilemmas of the Civil War, including slavery and destruction, the restorative power of religious faith, and the ghastly, hidden lies that can shatter an entire family.
The drama escalates through revelations that starkly illuminate the past – discussing them here would give away the ending. It’s not sophisticated plotting, but here, it is very effective.
All three actors give worthy performances, but Michael J. Asberry stands out as the freed slave Simon, who can’t read, but knows right from wrong… and is determined to build a new life for his family. His righteous resolve shines like a beacon in this war-wrecked landscape, in which justice appears like a flickering ghost, decked out in dubious shades of gray.
“The Whipping Man” continues through May 3 at the Sacramento Theatre Company.