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.
“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.
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