By Richard Strand
Directed by Joseph Discher
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“General Butler, you are fighting a war because some men saw things differently from some other men.” – Shepard Mallory
Based on true events, Richard Strand’s scintillating “Butler,” currently playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of the successful 5A Series, addresses issues of systemic racism extant in the Civil War Era and in the present – racism that threatens the very moral integrity of our nation. The play also addresses how stereotypes divide and threaten relationships. In the first scene, newly appointed Major General Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson) receives a “demand” from Shepard Mallory a runaway slave (John G. Williams) who has “illegally” entered Fort Monroe in Virginia. The demand, reports Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling) is to speak to Butler and to receive asylum from the Major General. Complicating the challenge is the presence of an additional two runaways who accompanied Mallory to the fort.
These three fascinating characters are developed with precision and real depth. Playwright Strand delineates their conflicts carefully and – with the help of history – creates an admirable level of authenticity. These conflicts, and those of Confederate Major Cary (David Sitler) who arrives at the fort to retrieve his commanding officer’s “property,” drive a complicated and intriguing plot that is rich in imagery and figurative language and includes heartfelt drama as well as endearing comedy. This plot recounts how Benjamin Butler deals with Mallory’s request for asylum and discloses skillfully just why Mallory knew he would win his case for asylum despite all of the legal and military odds against him. To say more would be unfair. It is enough to say Shepard Mallory is not the typical runaway slave and Major General Benjamin Butler is not the typical attorney turned general.
Mr. Strand utilizes the rhetorical devices of repetition and parallelism to his advantage in his well-written script. The first several minutes consist of a prolonged dialogue between Butler and Kelly that serves not only to introduce significant exposition but layers of tropes and bits of dialogue that will reappear throughout the script. Often words like ‘protocol’ and ‘provocation’ are tossed back and forth with the speed of a tennis ball at Wimbledon. “Butler” explores the motivations of individuals who make assumptions about others based on appearance and background and individuals who choose to use stereotypes rather than reason to judge others.
Mr. Adamson (Benjamin Butler) and Mr. Williams (Shepard Mallory) portray two remarkable characters neither of whom claims to be very “likable” and both of whom are “arrogant oddities.” Yet their performances could not be more irresistible. Mr. Adamson portrays a giant of a man who knows what is right and knows he has to find the way to do what is right. Mr. Williams portrays a man in mortal danger who knows he has to use every rhetorical device in his arsenal to survive. Benjamin Sterling’s Lieutenant Kelly is the perfect foil for General Butler’s bluster and these two actors make magic together on stage. Mr. Sterling’s timing is impeccable and he imbues his character with a deep authenticity that resonates with the richness of honesty.
This stage magic could not happen without Major Cary’s visit to Fort Monroe. David Sitler’s comedic performance as the intrusive Major is just what the playwright needs to stir up the developing plot and make it even more difficult for General Butler to simply send the runaway slaves on a journey to escape certain killing. Mr. Sitler gives his character a full range of emotion and believability. Shepard Mallory knows all about the Major and warns Butler that since the visitor is “an expert in artillery” he is coming to the fort to accomplish more than retrieving Mallory for his boss. With Major Cary’s hilarious blindfolded entry and exit, the plot thickens.
Jessica L. Parks’s set is exquisite and serves well for the action of the play. Especially welcomed is the outer room from Butler’s office. Ms. Parks has also decorated the set appropriately with charming period touches. Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes are perfect in every way, her uniform for Butler almost exactly matching those worn in his portraits. The contrast between the officers’ crisp uniforms and Mallory’s tattered slave clothing is laden with emotion. Jill Nagle’s lighting design establishes appropriate time and mood changes. Joseph Discher directs with passion and sensitivity and brings out the best in his talented ensemble cast.
“Butler” challenges the audience to reexamine the role of presumption and stereotyping in making judgments about individuals and their worth and to revisit the urgent need to eradicate systemic racism from the fabric of the nation. One expects to see “Butler” beyond its run at 59E59 Theaters.