The Whipping Man, which opens on April 2 at Geva, begins on the very day that Robert E. Lee disbanded the Army of Northern Virginia, just four days after his surrender at Appomattox. It takes place in Richmond, Virginia, a town destroyed by its own army. For much of the Civil War, Richmond had served as the capital of the Confederacy, and when it fell to the Union army after a siege on April 2, 1865, retreating soldiers were ordered to set fire to bridges, warehouses and the armory. With the city largely abandoned, the fire was unchecked, and the destruction and looting was widespread. The story of The Whipping Man begins 11 days later.
These images give you a sense of what Richmond looked like after the evacuation – the smoke rises from the shell of the buildings, and makes it feel more than a little haunted.
When scenic designer Erhard Rom approached the design for the play, he knew that he had to bring the destruction of Richmond center stage. “Matthew Lopez has created a suspenseful and moving play that peels the skin off our notions of race, religion, freedom, and honor. He describes the setting in great detail and is very clear that there must be something almost haunted about the space. The environment is “realistic,” with rain dripping down the exterior walls of a rather severely damaged large colonial home in Richmond, Virginia. In this setting, the surrounding catastrophe of the war remains powerfully in view throughout. The action takes place in the entryway of the home, with a clear view of the outside world.”
Lighting designer Kendall Smith adds, “This play, though contained within the foyer of an old mansion, expands beyond the walls and exposes all the flaws and traits of a country at war. It portrays epic moments of revelation and destruction, yet deals with these men and their situation in minute detail. Most of the piece takes place at night, where slivers of worn-out candlelight try to pierce the darkness and expose the lies and bitterness that have been laid upon this family. Rain falls, the air continues to thicken, but slowly some clarity enters their lives for a brief moment.”