Butler, by Richard Strand. Directed by Joseph Discher. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"And I can assume that, in the future, you will endeavor not
to astonish me again, can't I?"
David Schramm as Major General Benjamin Butler; photo: Kevin Sprague
Imagine, if you can, a play about runaway slaves at the start of the Civil War. Imagine a Major-General so irrascible and unpleasant addressing his adjutant, a recent graduate of West Point who came up through the ranks. Imagine a Southern Bigot who graces the world with nothing but disrespect. Now imagine paying to see this play, these men in this situation. But now - imagine enjoying yourself, finding that every penny you spent on this was absolutely worthwhile because you had a good time. This is the quick, one-dash summary of Richard Strand's play "Butler" now playing at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Art Center in Pittsfield, MA.
Directed by Joseph Discher this play moves along with the charm and panache of a Noel Coward comedy. The author has delivered a wonderfully wordy, non-stop dialogue play which gives each of the unpleasant characters an opportunity to one-up the others and keep the human interactions human indeed. There is never a moment when someone doesn't surprise you with a comment or a retort, a response or a riposte. Discher has the job of keeping us focused and with the constant back and forth among this crowd that is not so very easy. You almost find yourself moving your face back and forth, like a parody of a person watching a tennis match, as each man grabs the stale air of an army fortress office and tosses off another bon mot, another cracker-jack comment.
Butler is a lawyer with a legal mind that snaps to attention quicker than his adjutant does. When push comes to shove, he can push with the best of them. A lawyer's facility with facts and words is discussed long before the lawyer in the man goes to work on a tricky, legal situation that could start a war if a war wasn't already being waged. By the time the play ends, two hours after it begins, we have learned more about Butler, the runaway slave, the adjutant and the Confederate Army representative than we might ever have imagined possible.
Ben Cole is the superb Lieutenant Kelly of the Union Army. His erect demeanor hides as much as it reveals about the man. He knows his job, his place, his ranking in the order of things and he knows the limits of his own intelligence. Cole gives to the Lieutenant a sassy sense of savvy and he creates a living, breathing man on the stage. He is so good in the role that he makes us believe he has channeled just such a man.
John Hickok plays Major Cary of the Confederate Army with the perfect amount of self-assured stuffiness to allow us to hate him while we're enjoying his discomfort in his situation. His Virginia/Georgia accent is just deep enough to make this enemy unpleasant to hear. His haughtiness is an almost assumed naughtiness as he passes judgement without a word spoken. It's a wonderful vision into the soul of a soulless man that Hickok presents. Sent packing in a marvelous way we almost wish for his return for one more insult, one more accidental assault.
Shepard Mallory, a runaway slave, is played here by Maurice Jones who is so perfect in the part that his unaccented character, already as northern as he is black, grabs us from his first spoken lines. Strand has created a giant of a character, a man so convinced of his right to be who he is that when he refuses the gift of freedom it seems to be the right choice. Then we learn that it was the right choice. Jones allows us to laugh at Mallory, to sympathize and empathize with him, to root for him when there's nothing to root for and to feel an uncharacteristic longing to experience with Mallory what the slave is going through. It's a remarkable set of choices this actor had made along with his director. An almost symbolic character is presented with levels unseen, unheard, but felt and noted. I don't remember another actor creating a personna with so much depth in him. What I won't forget about this performance is his face in the final moments of the play as he turns upstage to see the future laid out before him.
Holding everything together is the masterful performance of David Schramm as Butler. Have I mentioned that this is a comedy? The comic timing this actor brings to the role is unreal. Simple lines are funny when he says them. Complicated expressions of anger, hostility and admiration come across with equal parts comedy and drama. Watching him, hearing the gears go round in his brain, seeing his eyes dart and darken, finding his breathing patterns echoing his sentiments, all of this while ex pounding on law and political devotions is taking a pathway through dense trees by following the light patterns on the floor of the forest. Schramm is a marvel. His rhythms control the other players. His peregrinations around the stage are the most generous movements in the play which mostly keeps characters on spot. In his hands Ben Butler is a marvel. In reality the General's decisions helped to alter the course of the war, its purpose changed to something that the North had not originally intended. On stage we never reach that point, but we are left knowing that Butler's decisions were humane and right. Schramm gives us both to think about.
Brian Prather's set is perfect for the play as are Jennifer Caprio's costumes. The lighting designed by Matthew Adelson feels the way light in a room should feel in 1861. Patrick Calhoun's sound design work was spot on as was Ryan Winkles' fight choreography. Joseph Discher's directon of this play seems to have been oriented toward character and relationship and not on unnecessary physical activity and so the dialogue takes first place and the individual character development allows the comedy in the humanity to emerge.
Imagine, as I said, a comedy about slavery at the beginning of the Civil War. Imagine yourself enjoying it. You can. You should. You must.
John Hickok, David Schramm; photo: Kevin Sprague
Maurice Jones, Ben Cole, David Schramm; photo: Kevin Sprague
Butler plays through June 13 on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company's Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Art Center, located at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line to www.barringtonstage.org.