The real Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, a lawyer, had a checkered political career that included support of moderate southerners. “I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs.” He chose, however, to serve in the Union Army. Butler was the first Eastern Union General to take the controversial stand on runaway slaves depicted in this play. Do not stop reading for fear of something military, hyper political, or turgid. Richard Strand’s fine play takes a serious subject and illuminates it with insight, humanity, and humor. It’s completely surprising.
We find ourselves at Fort Monroe in the state of an ostensibly seceding Virginia at the start of The Civil War. Just settling in to his new command, Major Butler (Ames Adamson) is informed by Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling) that a runaway slave, three, in fact- though we never meet two, has appeared at the ‘door’ demanding to see the major general.
Benjamin Sterling, Ames Adamson
The pivotal word here is “demanding,” a term evoking reflexive rage in a commander more insulted by audacity than discomfited at the appearance of unwanted visitors. Still, he’s alert enough to question whether his adjutant has specifically used the word because he dislikes – i.e. is prejudiced against – the Negro. He is. In the single instance of overwriting, we listen to a seemingly pompous man who enjoys the sound of his own voice discuss intention and phraseology. It passes. From the moment the slave, Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), is brought into the office, dialogue is dynamic and intriguing.
Torn by his disgust with slavery and commitment to uphold current law which dictates a return of this “property” to its owner, Butler treats Mallory with respect, immediately having him unshackled, dismissing the wary lieutenant, and offering a glass of sherry. The latter seems an odd gesture, but one that symbolizes Butler’s learned signs of civility. This is the first Negro to whom he’s actually spoken. Both men are nonplussed.
John G. Williams, Ames Adamson
The major general is visibly startled when Mallory insists that as a lawyer, he can surely “twist the law, using convoluted reason to find a loophole.” “Did you use the word convoluted?!” Not only is the slave articulate but, when he addresses the officer by his full name (stamped on surrounding boxes), Butler deduces he can read. Clearly ill informed about slavery, he can’t fathom why this should be a secret. He learns – by demonstration. Informative tidbits weave their way subtly through narrative.
Mallory is quick, sharp, stubborn, and arrogant, much like Butler who, despite better judgment, allows discourse, finding his exotic visitor fascinating. Conversation reveals both men without straying from credibility. The two square off with animosity appropriate to their positions. Butler experiences a ‘dark night of the soul’ resolving to take illegal action, but is thwarted and provoked in that order.
When a Major Carey (David Sitler) of the Confederate Army arrives to claim the escaped men, the commander must decide what he thinks morally right, how to achieve it, and how to live with the consequences. That confrontation is immensely clever.
Ames Adamson, David Sitler, Benjamin Sterling
Ames Adamson is splendid as Butler. Evident pressures of his quandary reflect personal history that doesn’t come up in dialogue. Surprise and curiosity are palpable. The actor’s timing as his character executes a risky, shocking plan is immensely skillful. A big man, he circles his ‘prey’ like a deadly animal with the trapping of manners. To the end of the play, Adamson reflects conflict and complexity.
John G. Williams is a fine match to Adamson’s strengths. His Shepard Mallory is necessarily deferential yet volatile, hyper-watchful, and, against all odds, believably proud. A slight southern accent is pitch perfect as is the difference between the slave’s parodied “Yassa” and normal speech. The actor has natural stage presence we trust early on. He never disappoints.
Benjamin Sterling (Lieutenant Kelly) manages flickers of unspoken opinion as well as he does hair-trigger reaction. A sea change in the character is manifest with plausibility.
David Siter’s Major Cary is vividly stiff, outraged, and gentlemanly. Exactly as he should be. His accent is impeccable. (Dialect Coach- Diego Daniel Pardo)
Director Joseph Discher creates stage pictures as effectively as the cast he helms inhabits their characters. Every player demonstrates physical personality attributes. Vocal rhythms differ. The temperature in the office seems to change. Violence arrives unexpectedly. (Fight Director Brad Lemons) The piece is unrushed so that the measure of each man may be observed by his fellows, yet adroitly moves along.
Jessica L. Parks Set would hold up on Broadway. A superb evocation of time and place. Patricia E. Doherty’s Costume Design is first-rate. Understated (not theatrically over-torn) slave apparel indicates her realism. Steve Beckel’s Sound Design utilizes military marching, period specific music and crowd sounds that add color.
There are moments in the latter part of Butler, the thoroughly engrossed audience vocally reacts to a character – something rare in serious theater. We rose as one at the finish. Not, as is usually the case, like lemmings, but in support of a wonderful production.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: John G. Williams, Ames Adamson
New Jersey Repertory Company presents
Butler by Richard Strand
Directed by Joseph Discher
59 East 59th Street
Through August 28, 2016