‘The Whipping Man’ puts Matthew Lopez on the map

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In career terms, the 34-year-old Brooklyn playwright Matthew Lopez went from 0 to 60 when his riveting Civil War drama “The Whipping Man” opened at the Manhattan Theater Club last year.

The show received great reviews — and had a cast of only three on a single set — which spurred regional theaters all over the country to start lining up productions.

A terrific version is closing at the Hartford Stage tomorrow.

Even though the play takes place in the living room of a ruined house in Richmond, Virginia, and only has three characters, “The Whipping Man” is so well-written and so open to new ways of looking at the past that it has more heft than some of the epic movies set during the same era.

On the phone from his Park Slope apartment recently, Lopez said he has gotten used to reviewers and feature writers who can’t get over the fact that a young gay man of Puerto Rican descent could write so movingly and realistically about the relationship between two black slaves and a white Confederate soldier at the end of the Civil War.

“I’m really incredibly old-fashioned in many ways,” Lopez said. “An old soul, I guess — I’ve been told that long enough. I’m drawn back to earlier times — I have a real soft spot for the Rat Pack and listen to a lot of Stan Getz. I rock out to more contemporary music, but my groove is in the mid-20th century.”

Still, Lopez is surprised that so many people forget that even a young playwright might have a vivid imagination and an interest in times before his own (not to mention the fact that a play about his own life might bore audiences to tears).

“I don’t believe anyone would be interested in my life being dramatized — it’s pretty boring,” he said, laughing. “I get up, head off to my writer’s space, have dinner with my boyfriend and go to bed.”

“I think it’s part of the job,” the writer said of being able to make up good stories. “If you can’t do that, I think you might consider another line of work..When my brain really lights up I’m thinking about worlds that don’t exist or those that I still want to visit.”

“I can honestly say, though, that I’m still trying to figure out what the success of the play means to me as a person. I don’t fully understand it,” he said of the immediate and widespread response to “The Whipping Man.”

The story deals with an aspect of an Southern life that isn’t often included in Civil War stories — the practice of Judaism in the South during the 19th century.

The older ex-slave in the play converted to the religion of his master. A good portion of “The Whipping Man” is devoted to the black man’s desire to have a Seder with the soldier son of the household, who has returned with a grievous leg injury.

The way that some Southern whites forgot that their “friendships” with slaves were a part of their ownership of people is dramatized in the soldier’s relationship with the third character in the play — a young slave he grew up with who has come to resent the way that whites are blind to the inherent falseness of their affection for a piece of human property.

Lopez’s ability to create a script suggestive enough for directors and actors to embellish in different ways has taken him by surprise as he has seen multiple productions.

“The association between my name under the title and what I saw (at Hartford Stage) is still startling. I know this sounds like false modesty but it’s true — I’m just as amazed as everyone else (by Hana Sharif’s Hartford production),” he said.

(For information on the final three performances of “The Whipping Man” in Hartford go to www.hartfordstage.org)

Joe Meyers

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