NY1’s Roma Torre's reviews the off-Broadway production of "Butler," a Civil War era tale based on a true story.
Given the racial divisions in this country, an historical play depicting the dynamic between a Civil War era slave and a Union general gains added relevance. “Butler" comes to Off-Broadway by way of the New Jersey Repertory Company and it's as delightfully engaging as it is astonishingly true.
The year is 1861, the war has just begun and Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, a crusty lawyer, is at his new post in Virginia just as the southern state seceded from the Union. However, another event, far less momentous, took place at the same time and it set into motion the eventual declaration emancipating the slaves.
At curtain-up, Butler learns that three runaway slaves have arrived at the Fort seeking sanctuary. As history has it, the compassionate general devised a way to skirt the fugitive slave law, which would have forced him to return the slaves to their owners. His interpretation, which basically classified the slaves as contraband, inevitably saved hundreds of lives.
But more than the intriguing facts of this story, its charm comes from playwright Richard Strand’s amusingly nuanced characterizations. Butler and one of the slaves - Shepard Mallory - are painted as flawed individuals filled with odd quirks that amplify their humanity and defy stereotype.
The excellent cast, including a by-the book lieutenant and a confederate officer are period perfect. Best of all, Ames Adamson's irascible Butler and John G.Williams scrappy Mallory emerge quite convincingly as kindred spirits.
Directed by Joseph Discher with an eye for comedy and drama, "Butler" is quite a marvelous feat - a boffo character study and suspense yarn spun from little more than a loophole in the law.