Chicago Theatre Review
Sherry and Astonishment in Virginia
Butler – Northlight Theatre
Benjamin Franklin Butler, the little-remembered American lawyer, politician and soldier, suddenly became a major general in the Union Army during the Civil War. He served in the Massachusetts state militia, as a US Congressman representing his state, and later became Governor. Butler even ran for President against Grover Cleveland. There are so many interesting and controversial stories and events surrounding this man’s life, but playwright Richard Strand found his inspiration from a footnote in a biography of Abraham Lincoln. He chose to write this play to explain how Butler became one of history’s unsung heroes in his humane treatment of escaped slaves at the beginning of the Civil War.
As Strand’s play opens, Butler has just recently become the commanding officer at Fort Monroe in Virginia. He’s enjoying an uncomfortably terse relationship with the overly protective, by-the-book Lieutenant Kelly, whose job it is to carry out Butler’s orders and commands. Kelly announces that three runaway slaves have arrived at the Fort and are demanding an audience with Butler. However, one of the Major General’s initial discussions with his lieutenant included his passionate dislike of the word “demand.” The arrival of three men demanding to speak with Butler opens up a humorous discussion about that word and figures prominently in later scenes. Strand’s surprisingly funny historical two-act dramedy makes Major General Butler into a charming, civilized, very realistic gentleman. The playwright provides his four characters two hours of delightful word play and political and moral discussion and debate.
Shepard Mallory is the smart, impassioned spokesperson for the three runaway slaves and he engages Butler in several moving, often hilariously intelligent discussions. The remaining character in Strand’s play is Major Cary, a southern military officer sent to retrieve the escaped African Americans and return them to their owner. It’s during this encounter with the obnoxious, preening Major Cory that Butler is motivated toward a decision that will change history. When Cary maintains that the runaways aren’t men, but rather property, Butler invokes an established law relating to the confiscation of contraband from the enemy. And, especially since Virginia has just seceded from the Union, the law is even more enforceable. Eventually Abraham Lincoln will endorse Butler’s decision and all Union commanders would be ordered to not return fugitive slaves seeking asylum.
Stuart Carden’s production is quite wonderful. It’s a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre that not only sheds light on and makes flesh-and-blood a little-known American hero but gives importance to a forgotten significant historical event. He skillfully stages Strand’s witty, comical play within Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s beautifully authentic, minutely-detailed unit set. Rachel Laritz’ well-tailored military costumes provide the right period perfect look for the play.
Carden’s cast is terrific. Veteran actor and Chicago favorite Greg Vinkler is magnificent as Major General Butler. He brings strength and a quiet gentility to the role of the sherry-swilling military gentleman. Mr. Vinkler not only relishes his dialogue, making each and every word count, but he gives important weight even to Butler’s carefully chosen silences. Nate Burger, so skillful in CST’s “The Heir Apparent,” is superb and in top form as Lieutenant Kelly. He provides nicely understated comic timing while journeying from prejudiced young military man to enlightened, compassionate humanitarian. Tosin Morohunfola is eloquent and equally humorous and heartbreaking as Shepard Mallory. His verbal sparing with Vinkler sizzles with luminosity and levity. And Tim Monsion portrays Major Cory as an arrogant southern peacock who thoroughly enjoys lording over everyone around him. Cory considers African Americans, Northerners and everyone else to be his inferiors; but he’s served and forced to eat a huge slice of humble pie, thanks to Mr. Vinkler’s astonished Major General Butler.
Often historical dramas suffer because they’re ponderous and pretentious. Not so with Richard Strand’s entertaining play about a little-known Civil War and human rights hero. With excellent biographical program information, provided by dramaturgs Lauren Shouse and Jacob Hoover, audiences will discover even more about the man, the event and the times. Under Stuart Carden’s talented direction this piece of history springs to life and will resonate with smart theatergoers long after the final curtain.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 11-April 17 by Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com