Northeast Times

A different war story

For Cody Nick­ell, a stage play fo­cus­ing on two slaves, a wounded Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier and a life-chan­ging Pas­sov­er seder re­quired some out-of-the-norm re­search.

L-R: John­nie Hobbs, Jr. as Si­mon and Cody Nick­ell as Caleb in Ar­den Theatre Com­pany’s pro­duc­tion of The Whip­ping Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Jew­ish hol­i­day of Pas­sov­er isn’t un­til next spring, but lately, Cody Nick­ell has been par­ti­cip­at­ing in a Pas­sov­er seder al­most every even­ing.

Of course, it’s not a true ritu­al seder, which hap­pens only once a year. This is a staged seder, which takes place dur­ing the second act of the Ar­den Theatre’s cur­rent pro­duc­tion, The Whip­ping Man.

The Civil War drama, fresh from a sold-out run at the Man­hat­tan Theatre Club, fo­cuses on a wounded Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier who re­turns to his fam­ily home in Rich­mond, Va. The oth­er fam­ily mem­bers are gone, but the sol­dier re­unites with the fam­ily’s two former slaves, who are now free.

Slaves in the South ad­op­ted the re­li­gion of their own­ers, and since this fam­ily was Jew­ish, these slaves were raised in the Jew­ish tra­di­tion.

Play­wright Mat­thew Lopez, a Civil War buff, wanted to set his play dur­ing the cru­cial month of April 1865, when the Civil War ended and Pres­id­ent Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln was as­sas­sin­ated. While do­ing re­search, he dis­covered that Robert E. Lee’s sur­render at Ap­po­mat­tox happened just one day be­fore Pas­sov­er began that year. 

That’s why Pas­sov­er be­came so prom­in­ent in the play.

CEL­EB­RAT­ING LIBERTY

“As these slaves were be­ing freed, there was this an­cient ob­serv­ance of the Ex­odus story,” the play­wright said in a New York Times in­ter­view.

In the play, the sol­dier and newly freed slaves cel­eb­rate a hol­i­day that com­mem­or­ates free­dom from slavery.

“The script totally in­trigued me when I read it,” says Nick­ell, who plays the wounded Jew­ish sol­dier. “The idea of these three men hav­ing a seder to­geth­er and deal­ing with this brand new world is not a story that’s been told be­fore. And the audi­ence gets to see this ac­tu­al ce­re­mony on the stage. That’s something they don’t of­ten see in the theat­er.” 

Al­though he’s not Jew­ish, Nick­ell has played a num­ber of Jew­ish char­ac­ters, but play­ing a South­ern­er is a first.

“I grew up in North Car­o­lina, and I’ve been wait­ing for my whole ca­reer to play a South­ern­er,” says the act­or. “This is my first chance, and I jumped at it.”

To pre­pare for the role, he did re­search about Jew­ish life in the South. And last month, he at­ten­ded his first seder. 

A REAL-LIFE EX­PER­I­ENCE

A mem­ber of the Ar­den staff, Leigh Golden­berg, wanted the cast to ex­per­i­ence a seder. Two weeks after re­hears­als began, she in­vited the act­ors, the dir­ect­or and the stage man­agers to her home for a full-fledged seder with her fam­ily. 

“It was won­der­ful!” says Nick­ell. “I was very moved by it, and grate­ful to share a tra­di­tion that’s so mean­ing­ful to Jew­ish fam­il­ies. It was also very help­ful to me as an act­or.”

The two oth­er cast mem­bers, who play the freed slaves, are Phil­adelphia act­ors John­nie Hobbs Jr. and James Ijames. 

“They are spec­tac­u­lar,” says Nick­ell. “They’re great act­ors and I couldn’t be hap­pi­er work­ing with them.”

He’s also de­lighted to work with dir­ect­or Matt Pfeif­fer for the first time.

“We’d met through my work in Phil­adelphia, and I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time,” he says. “He’s a won­der­ful dir­ect­or.”

Al­though he wel­comed the chance to play the re­turn­ing sol­dier, Nick­ell’s role has dif­fi­cult chal­lenges.  

“I’m play­ing a wounded sol­dier in a lot of pain, and when I come in, I fall to the ground al­most im­me­di­ately,” says Nick­ell, who wears a rebel uni­form with blood on the trousers be­cause of the gun­shot wound in his lower leg.

RE­LAX­ING ON THE JOB

For the rest of the play, he’s al­ways ly­ing down. That’s harder than it might seem. “I can’t walk around, I can’t use ges­tures, so I have to rely only on my face and my voice to con­vey the drama,” he says. 

And there in­deed is drama.

Caleb, the sol­dier played by Nick­ell, has lost his faith dur­ing the war. But one of the former slaves is es­pe­cially de­vout. Dur­ing the first act, both former slaves pray over meals, but Caleb does not.

“Why aren’t you pray­ing?” they chal­lenge him.

“We get in­to a heated ar­gu­ment about faith and what it means to be a Jew,” Nick­ell says of the per­form­ance.

Then, in Act 2, dur­ing the seder, “Caleb’s faith is reawakened, es­pe­cially be­cause it’s shared with these two men,” says Nick­ell. “Shar­ing words about free­dom and bond­age is very mean­ing­ful.”

The seder table has al­most all the ritu­al ob­jects and foods. But the three have no matzo, the tra­di­tion­al un­leavened bread used dur­ing the seder, so in­stead they use hardtack crack­ers that sol­diers ate. 

SECRETS RE­VEALED

John­nie Hobbs Jr., the act­or play­ing former slave Si­mon, leads the seder. The oth­er former slave, played by James Ijames, does some read­ings from the Pas­sov­er Hag­gadah, and so does Nick­ell.

But the true drama is not about re­li­gion, and it emerges dur­ing the seder.

“It’s about secrets these men are keep­ing from each oth­er,” says Nick­ell. “And they’re all re­vealed dur­ing the seder.”

Throughout Act 2, Nick­ell re­mains ly­ing down, even at the seder table. 

It’s an en­tirely new type of role for this award-win­ning act­or, who has had nu­mer­ous Shakespeare roles with re­gion­al theat­ers, in­clud­ing the Shakespeare Theatre and the Fol­ger Theatre, where he earned a Helen Hayes nom­in­a­tion for Shakespeare Santa Cruz.

Oth­er re­gion­al theat­er cred­its in­clude Port­land Cen­ter Stage, San Jose Rep, and the Stam­ford Theat­er  Works, where he earned a Con­necti­c­ut Crit­ics Circle Award. 

The ver­sat­ile act­or also has TV and film cred­its, in­clud­ing That ’70s Show, Celebrity Death Match, All My Chil­dren, Guid­ing Light, The Con­an O’Bri­en Show and the film Dori­an Blues. 

In Phil­adelphia, he has been in two Wilma Theat­er pro­duc­tions. And at the Ar­den, he ap­peared in Crime and Pun­ish­ment.

Now he’s de­lighted to re­turn to a Phil­adelphia stage.

“Any­time I can get work in Philly I jump at the chance,” he says. “I love the theat­er com­munity here. And I’m thrilled to get an­oth­er chance to work with the Ar­den.”

“I loved work­ing on this play,” he adds. “It’s heavy sub­ject mat­ter, and at times it can be emo­tion­ally drain­ing. But it’s an in­cred­ibly ful­filling play to per­form.” ••

If you go …

The Whip­ping Man con­tin­ues through Dec. 18 on the Ar­ca­dia stage of the Ar­den Theatre Com­pany, 40 N. Second St. 

For tick­ets ($48 to $29), call the box of­fice at 215-922-1122 or vis­it www.ar­dentheatre.org

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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