(Above, left to right: Matthew Arnscott, Dawaun Lawler and Stanley Coleman make up the cast in The Very Little Theatre’s production of “The Whipping Man.”)

By Randi Bjornstad

Matthew Lopez’ play, “The Whipping Man,” had its debut at the Barrington Stage Company nearly eight years ago, and at the time he was described in an interview with writer Larry Murray as “still in his twenties, a totally modern American male, of Puerto Rican descent, and gay.”

All that background may have helped to give Lopez the insight to write “The Whipping Man,” which centers around Jewish man who is also a Southern slaveholder and who returns from the Civil War to his ruined plantation to find his two remaining slaves planning a Seder meal.

As Lopez explained it to Murray, “In my research, I discovered that Passover began the day after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. It gave me goosebumps to realize that the ancient tradition of commemorating the Exodus from Egypt was occurring at the same time a new American exodus was happening.”

That new exodus, of course, was the freed slaves preparing to leave centuries of servitude, which as we all know now has been fraught ever since with many of their countrymen still attempting to prevent them from taking their rightful places, both socially and economically.

And yes, Lopez told Murray, there were Jewish slaveowners in the American South.

“They made up a much smaller population of slaveowners than their Christian neighbors,” he said, “but American Jews in the South were not immune to the pull of slavery.”

Religious hypocrisy is not the province of any religion, he concluded, “and perhaps by exploring it in our past, we can better understand it in our present.”

For her part, Nancy Boyett, director of “The Whipping Man” at The Very Little Theatre, said in introducing the play that the subjects of freedom and slavery, especially from the widely divergent characters of the play’s three actors, are reflected “on many levels — culturally, religiously, even through the personal choices we make.

Ultimately what I love about “The Whipping Man” is that my mind is engaged as well as my heart,” Boyett said. “The story is a mystery of sorts that we are privileged to watch unravel, and also a journey of emotion, an exercise in empathy.”

Veteran actor Stanley Coleman plays Simon, one of the slaves, with Dawaun Lawler as the other, named John. Matthew Arscott takes the role of the slaveowner, Caleb. The technical crew includes set designer Darryl Marzyck, with costumes by Paula Tendick.

The Whipping Man

When: 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 19-20, 25-27 and Feb. 1-3; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. on Jan. 21 and 28

Where: Very Little Theatre, 2350 Hilyard St., Eugene

Tickets: $15 on Thursdays, $19 on Friday through Sunday, except $15 always for students and  senior citizens; available online at TheVLT.com or at the box office, 541-344-7751, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday

Details: The opening night show on Jan. 19 includes an after-party with refreshments. At each performance, the theater has 20 assisted-listening devices, available on a first-come basis.