Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires


Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Butler
Barrington Stage Company

Also see Fred's review of The Second Mrs. Wilson


David Schramm
Artistic Director Julianne Boyd kick-starts Barrington Stage Company's summer season into an artistic fifth gear by selecting Richard Strand's Butler, presented with dazzling skill on the St. Germain Stage. Playing through June 13th in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, this prized production is directed by Joseph Discher.

The title character, played with fervor, zeal, heart, and comic-awareness by David Schramm, actually lived when the action occurs at the beginning of the Civil War, May 23, 1861. Major General Benjamin Butler was first a New England attorney who just now finds himself at Fort Monroe in Virginia, commissioned to be an officer—and he is faced with a monumental problem. Three runaway slaves have arrived and one, Shepard Mallory (Maurice Jones), announces that he wants sanctuary; he will simply not return to the man who, by law, rightfully owns him. Butler is in a conundrum: he can allow Mallory to go North and attempt to live freely or force him back to his former captivity. Not a great choice.

Brian Prather, maximizing the space at BSC, creates a most realistic look for the confines of Butler's office, so to speak, at the fort. Bricks are shaped into archways, kerosene type lamps are evident, and Butler sits at his desk. There is a mounted photograph of President Abraham Lincoln, and an American Flag is perched behind the desk. During the early section of this play, Butler scornfully dresses down Lieutenant Kelly (Ben Cole) who rigidly informs the major general that Shepard Mallory wishes to present his case. This exposition focuses upon the word "demands."

Eventually, Mallory is led into the room and downs a glass of sherry, the drink Butler advocates, favors, and offers. Shepard Mallory explains that if he is ordered back, he will then be told to kill, in essence, people like Butler. If he stays, he will assist in killing Virginians. Butler, an attorney by trade, is glib, articulate, and in command of a large vocabulary. These two get into quite some conversation about ethics, values, word usage, and, ultimately, what Mallory's status will be. He understands that he is caught in a never never land between slavery and freedom. Butler wonders why Mallory finds the need to say anything. The corpulent general explains that he doesn't broadcast his own Presbyterian religion. So?

The second act opens with significant parrying as Major Cary of the Confederate Army (John Hickok), who is blindfolded, enters. Adversaries by definition, these men engage in serious and sometimes sarcastic sparring. As is the case with any visitor, Butler runs the show. This is his space, his theater, his scenario—and he will not be shaken.

Before Mallory comes on the scene again, Kelly, educated at West Point and suddenly more colloquial and willing to risk an option, recommends to Butler that the slave not be forced to return to his owner. When Mallory is ushered into the "office," Butler insists that he and Kelly sit beside one another—and opposite him. These two actually converse, informally, with one another, which is just a tad hilarious.

The crux of the play centers on human relations. Before intermission, Mallory suggests to Butler that the general likes him, and Butler denies it. A few moments later, Mallory says, "You don't want to think so. But deep down I believe you know that you and me, we got the same brain." Later in this two-person dialogue, Mallory continues: "I think the idea of this war scares the devil and all of his friends right out of you. But you balance that fear with being overconfident. I do that too! It's that confidence—that arrogance—that makes it possible for you to be a major general. I believe, if I was white, I would be a major general too." A short time later Butler, exasperated and assuredly in denial says, "We do not think alike!"

Butler was staged for the first time about a year ago by and at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, New Jersey. Richard Strand's script is witty, informative, brisk, and provocative. He catches his audience early. John Discher directed the world premiere and is now ably guiding the Barrington Stage production's quality actors. Schramm is a talented veteran actor and he is a perfect fit for this role. Poised and literally large, he demands attention. Maurice Jones, a gifted actor, brings a character who is eloquent, fearless, bold, and completely driven. Cole, who plays Kelly, and Hickok, as Cary, fuel sharp performances.

The event which is the substance of this excellent play is based upon historical fact. Strand's dialogue, as this playwright imagines what might have been said, is persuasive, on point, and pointed. The relevance of the play within the context of an America which each day grapples with race relations cannot be more highly stressed. It is incisive; it is timely. Final word: contraband. See the show for further edification.

Butler continues at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through June 13th, 2015. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.


Photo: Kevin Sprague

- Fred Sokol


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