First, banish any preconceived notions that BUTLER, Richard Strand's new play currently at NJ Rep, is about the life of a domestic servant – the sort with Oprah Winfrey in the background to provide moral support. The title actually refers to real-life Civil War Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, who served the Union as commander of Fort Monroe, Virginia, where the play is set.
The events of May 1861 are matters of historical record: three runaway slaves arrived at the Fort seeking sanctuary. Butler's predicament is whether to return them to their rightful owners (as per the laws of the time) where they will most certainly face torture or death, or to somehow allow them to escape North to freedom. Both options seem equally unacceptable to the slaves, who insist on sanctuary - also a matter of historical fact. What is not fact, of course, are the imagined conversations between Butler and the slaves (here embodied by Strand-appointed spokesman, Shepard Mallory); those are strictly the manufacture of the playwright. And riveting stuff, they are indeed.
Strand opens his play with an extended verbal exchange between Butler (a commanding Ames Adamson) and his Lieutenant (an appropriately obsequious Benjamin Sterling), who has the unfortunate duty to convey the slaves' demands to the astonished Butler. The Major General's pre-War profession becomes increasingly apparent as he engages in a lengthy linguistic diatribe over the Lieutenant's unfortunate use of the word 'demands'. Only a lawyer could so vigorously battle over the verbiage used by a duty-torn soldier. The sequence brilliantly sets up what is to come – a war of wits and witticisms. Mallory (a wonderful John G. Williams) is a well educated slave – one who may or may not be able to read but who has a vocabulary that surely comes from something other than building Southern garrets, which has been his main pastime of late. Whatever its source, this educational edge allows him to go toe to toe with the Major General – taking the blustery Butler somewhat aback.
In the play's second act, the Confederacy sends munitions expert Major Cary (a dignified David Sitler) to retrieve their 'property.' Once again, wily wordsmith Butler engages mightily with Cary, whom he rightly assumes is more Southern spy than official emissary. How the issue is eventually resolved is on a par with the most brilliant courtroom drama – showing that Butler's brain is certainly mightier than his bravery or brawn. Without resorting to history book spoilers, Act Two finds Butler taking issue with another choice word - 'contraband' – and manipulating a recent declaration from the Commonwealth to his own ends.
Strand's play is pitch perfect in both structure and dialogue – a rarity for a world premiere. He paints a textual picture of a man who is more at home on the bench than the battlefield. Strand's Butler is a complex character, one with moral ambiguities – a beast with a brain. In his NJ Rep debut, director Joseph Discher stages the play with a no-nonsense briskness that always values words over movement, something that would please the Major General, no doubt.
With a rock-solid script and assured direction, the success of the play falls to the actor cast as Butler. NJ Rep regular Ames Adamson is nothing short of magnificent in the title role. His is a considered, exacting performance that keeps us riveted throughout. Thanks to his odd period hairstyle and desk-jockey paunch, Adamson also looks alarmingly like photographs of the real-life Butler. The actor inhabits the character inside and out.
George S. Kaufman once quipped that “God writes lousy theatre” - meaning that the events of history are rarely interesting enough on their own without a dramatist's intervention. In BUTLER, the Deity comes as close as can be imagined, and Strand and company more than capably provide the rest.
BUTLER continues at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ, through July 13th. For tickets and information contact www.njrep.com or call 732-229-3166
Review by Michael T. Mooney (www.michaeltmooney.com)