Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Butler Rousing New Civil War Comedy Premieres
On May 23, newly commissioned and assigned Union Major-General Benjamin Butler was in command of Fort Monroe in Virginia when three runaway slaves sought sanctuary there. Butler was reluctant to return them to the Confederacy. The action which Butler took upon his own authority to resolve his moral dilemma is depicted in Butler, the new Civil War comedy by Richard Strand premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company.
The details of the manner in which Butler undertook his significant historic action are lost to time. Thus, Strand has successfully undertaken the task of creating personalities and scenes which provide plausible motivations and situations.
However, the dialogue and interplay are happily not realistic. For, whether by intent or good fortune, Strand's clever, witty creation proves to be a rousing, witty, and quite pointed comedy. The interplay and repartee involving the four male protagonists is theatrical and intellectually refreshing. Very importantly, it illuminates the historical moment that it depicts, and renders the idea of treating a human being as property as an absurdity.
Ames Adamson's Butler is a cantankerous, overbearing individual with a clever mind, moral code, and a great deal of self assurance. His over intensity as performed by Adamson enhances the comedy. John G. Williams is superb as runaway slave Shepard Mallory. Mallory, despite his own cantankerousness, is so perfectly brilliant, funny, reasonable, articulate and likeable that he could only exist in literature. And this is all to the good in the context of the artifice of Butler.
Solid support comes from Benjamin Sterling as Butler's aide, Lt. Kelly, and David Sitler as confederate Major Cary. Sterling conveys maturation in Kelly as a result of his observation and participation in the events portrayed. Sitler is on target as the foil for Butler and the others.
Director Joseph Discher has elicited lively, excellent performances which bring out all the wit and passion of the text. Jessica Parks has designed a detailed fortress of a commander's office.
Although it always holds our interest, Butler initially plays like a light history lesson for families. However, once it gets rolling, it becomes a clever, full-blown comedy which could become widely popular.
Butler continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through July 13, 2014, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
Butler by Richard Strand; directed by Joseph Discher
Photo: SuzAnne Barabas