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A CurtainUp Review

I'm sworn to uphold the law. I cannot break the law, even if I disagree with the law. — General Benjamin Butler
L-R: John G. Williams as Shepard Mallory and Ames Adamson as Benjamin Butler.
The blustery Major General quoted above is the title character of Richard Strand's slice of history play currently in its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters' main venue (Theater A). Though the Civil War has begun, the Fugitive Slavery Act of 1850 is still a law of the land. But shrewd lawyer as Butler was before taking on the Fort Monroe post, he manages to use that obligation to outfox the slave owner determined to regain his property: Three slaves who rowed across Virginia's James River to claim asylum at this isolated Union outpost.

Mr. Strand is just as shrewd as his title character in the way he's brought this actual incident and its conflict between legal and ethical correctness to vivid theatrical life. The long, painful Civil War with its loss of some 700,000 lives is hardly the stuff of comedy. Nor does what is essentially a lengthy debate between Butler and Shepard Mallory, one of the asylum seeking slaves, sound like high drama.

Yet, though Butler is indeed talky, it's never a dry history lesson. The talk between Butler and Mallory is both amusing and witty. The appearances of two other character's —. Butler's aide-de-camp Lieutenant Kelly and a supercilious Major representing the slave owner — further add dramatic muscle to this battle of wits.

Naturally, there were no e-mails or other electronic means of eavesdropping on private conversations affecting the state of the Union. Therefore, the records of events that inspired the play detailed the issues at stake in deciding how to deal with the runaways, how they were handled and the far reaching ripple effect of those decisions. However, it was up the the playwright to imagine the actual conversations that led to Major-General Butler's coming up with the idea of legally helping to free the fugitive slaves by declaring them to be contraband in service of a hostile entity no longer part of the Union. It was also the playwright's challenge to put his own spin on the people involved so that they would be compelling characters rather than documentary style talking heads.

In meeting that challenge, Strand has created a play that will have a solid life despite lacking the legs to carry it to Broadway — a play audiences will respond to even if the actors on stage don't have big-ticket selling credentials. The 2014 premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company reviewed by Simon Saltzman has already seeded several other productions. That includes one reviewed last year at Barrington Stage by Curtainup's Gloria Miller. That one featured a different cast (also ecellent) but with the NJRep's director, Joseph Discher, at the helm. Now, that I've had a chance to see NJRep's own NY premiere at 59E59 Street with the same team as Simon saw, I too am a fan.

The real Benjamin Butler, courtesy of the Library of Congress archives.
Jessica L. Parks' handsome, smartly detailed unit set of the still new on the job Major-General's office fits perfectly into Theater A's stage. Ames Adamson is ideally cast as the bellicose Major-General who discovers how well his legal skills are going to serve him in dealing with the unanticipated crisis. And while Gloria Miller's review of last year's Barrington Stage production makes it clear that it's not necessary to look like the real Butler, Ames Adamson's remarkable resemblance to Butler adds a piquant touch of extra authenticity.

It's hard to believe that a slave without formal education could be as smart and observant as Shepard Mallory, but John G. Williams again portrays this man with such a mix of natural intelligence, hope, despair and desperation that we buy into the way he connects with, persuades and inspires Butler to help him and his companions — even if doing so was sure to send a parade of other fugitives who would be helping the Union instead of their Southern masters to win the war.

Benjamin Sterling and David Sitler again turn their secondary roles into first-rate additions to the play's pleasures.

Rather than repeat more details, herewith a link to Gloria Miller's review in the Berkshires) — and below Simon Saltzman's review of the play's first outing with the same actors, designers and director that correctly ended with a prediction for the play's promising future.


Review of the Premiere Production by Simon Saltzman

We are fighting to uphold the law. We can't suddenly decide to break the law in order to uphold it. — Butler

Sure you can. You're a lawyer. You can twist the law. You can make the law be anything you want it to be. You can make a law mean the opposite of what it's supposed to mean. That's what lawyers do, isn't it? — Mallory
Former Massachusetts attorney Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson) may be insecure and ill-prepared to assume his role of Major General in 1861 at the start of the Civil War. And he also doubts if he is up to meeting the unexpected challenge he is faced with at Fort Monroe in Virginia where he is newly in command. The war has barely begun and Butler must decide if he is obliged to disobey the law of the land wherein a slave must be returned to their owner. He ponders this with resolve when confronted by Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams) a runaway slave who has asked for sanctuary at this strategic post.

Butler is an excellent and engrossing play laced with humor by playwright Richard Strand. It is comprised of a series of blistering confrontations primarily between Butler and the unexpectedly literate and erudite Mallory. Although it is charged with socio-political inquiry, it is also fueled by its amusingly discharged discourse between the authoritarian general and the fervently argumentative slave who is making his plea to be given his freedom. It becomes more of a major issue when Butler's refusal to return the slave could mean his court-martial and a certain death sentence for the slave.

The dilemma reaches a peak when Butler is visited by an arrogant Confederate Major Cary (David Stiller) who, acting under authority of the slave's owner, demands his return. Under Butler's command is Lt. Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), who is generally confounded by his superior's decisions.

Strand, who says that he was made aware of the real incident by way of a footnote in a Lincoln biography, is chairman of the theater department at Mt. San Antonio College where he teaches "History of Theater and Playwriting." He is to be commended for making his play a thoroughly entertaining and dramatically informed return to this incident. The director Joseph Discher, noted for his laudable 2002 to 2010 te tenure as Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, has encouraged splendid performances from the four actors, each giving vivid portrayals of the play's well-defined characters.

The play is set within Butler's office. As effectively designed by Jessica Parks. It has the modest decor of a masculine study with an easy chair, book shelves, a throw rug, a Lincoln portrait, wall map and a flag. In it, Butler presides, deploying all the techniques and tactics of a skilled lawyer. Adamson takes the disagreeable personality of his character quite seriously even as he toys with and tests the patience of those in his presence. Mostly bald except for the long black hair that fills up the back of his head and a formidable mustache, Adamson is at his best bellowing, the better to keep his adversaries on guard. "If I heard myself talking, I would consider better what I was saying."

Williams is impressive as the formidably assertive Mallory who has led a small group of slaves (unseen) of slaves to the fort. Tough, insolent, and as argumentative as is Butler, Mallory is willing to risk everything for freedom. The tide begins to turn when Butler realizes that the slaves who are being used to build bridges for the Confederacy may be held and considered as contraband.

Condescension marks Stiller fine performance as Major Cary just as nonplussed compliance defines Sterling as Lt. Kelly. The play moves along as swiftly as the twisting and turning of the decisions being made will undoubtedly help in turning the tide of the war with Lincoln's unveiling of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. There is likely more to be heard about Butler following this world premiere.

Simon's review was based on his attendance at the 6/14/14 opening night performance at New Jersey Repertory Theater where it played through 7/13/14.

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Butler by Richard Strand
Directed by Joseph Discher.
Ames Adamson (General Benjamin F. Butler), Benjamin Sterling (Lt. Kelly) David Sitler (Major Cary) John G, Williams (Shepard Mallory) Set Desig: Jessica Parks
Lighting Design: Jill Nagle
Sound Design: Steve Beckel
Costume Design: Patricia E. Doherty
Wig Design: Leh J. Loukas
Fight Director: Brad Lemons
Stage Manager: Rose riccardi
Running Time: 2 hours including one intermission
New Jersey Repertory Company production at 59E59 Theater
From 7/14/16; opening 7/27/16; closing 8/28/16.
Tuesday – Thursday at 7 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM; Sunday at 3 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/22/16 press preview

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