By Phil Dorian
Rarely has a slice of history been as entertainingly – and accurately – portrayed as in “Butler,” Richard Strand’s world-premiere play now at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
The characters in “Butler” really existed and the circumstances really occurred. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the dialogue was lifted from an actual recording.
There was, of course, no recording device in the office of the Commanding General of Fort Monroe, Va., on May 23, 1861, six weeks after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter precipitated the Civil War. No, the dialogue between Gen. Benjamin F. Butler and an escaped Negro slave, as he’s referred to, is fabricated by Strand, who, fortunately for us, scripted it into “Butler.”
Gen. Butler (Ames Adamson) and his adjutant, Lt. Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), are astonished by the audacity of Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), who, seeking sanctuary, “demands” to speak with the General. Fort Monroe, a Union facility, is in Virginia, which had declared itself a Confederate state. The Articles of War mandated that fugitive slaves, deemed “property,” be returned to their owners.
The onerous Article was thwarted through an intricate legal maneuver that revolutionized the disposition of slaves and which forms the basis of the play. (When President Lincoln was informed, he directed other Union generals to do the same.)
Strand’s characters evolve from mutual hatred to grudging respect and even hints of equality and friendship. (Gen. Butler letting the slave call him “Ben” seems a stretch, but who knows? Maybe he did.) Deftly directed by Joseph Discher, the attitude adjustment occurs naturally over the play’s two hours.
Affecting the real Gen. Butler’s half-billiard ball, half-bushy hairstyle, Adamson creates a martinet with heart. The portly General is firmly in command, but he’s also a good listener, not above accepting an escaped slave’s guidance.
Adamson, proving once again a highly skilled character actor, huffs and puffs when appropriate, but his General knows that a calming glass of sherry can relieve tension. Or create it.
Sterling is indeed sterling as Lt. Kelly, whose rigid manner thaws into comradeship; his timing with Kelly’s amusing second-act interjections is spot-on. David Sitler plays a Confederate Major who arrives to take the slave back to his owner. The Major could have been turned into a caricatured buffoon, but Sitler, whose muttonchop whiskers are perfection, does not overact the pompous Major’s irritability.
The revelation in “Butler” is John G. Williams, who enacts Shepard Mallory’s combination of arrogance and desperation to a tee. Fearing for his very life, dressed in rags and manacled, the slave maintains his dignity. It’s a fine performance.
The wickedness of slavery is communicated without any lurid descriptions or use of language that must have been common in 1861. Who would imagine that a slave’s fear that his ability to read would be discovered could induce shudders on his behalf?
At the end of “Butler,” something mysterious occurs that couldn’t have happened in the time frame presented. Well, guess what? That’s what did happen and when. Richard Strand didn’t invent his plot, but there aren’t any new ones anyway.
Like most new plays, “Butler” would benefit from some trimming, especially in the early scenes, but making imaginary or real characters so sympathetic, so funny and so relevant, is damn good playwriting no matter the source.
”Butler,” through July 13 at New Jersey Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances: 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets ($42) at 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org.
[Postscript: Later, less-admirable activities earned General Benjamin F. Butler the nickname “Beast Butler.” I can’t wait for Strand’s sequel!)***END
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