Detroit Rep’s “Butler” taut, funny and perfect for today
A “negro slave” demands to see the Union General commander at Fort Monroe in the earliest days of the Civil War, weeks after the attack at Fort Sumter. The Major General, Ben Butler, a lawyer in civilian life, does not like anyone to demand anything of him. But then, he meets runaway slave Shepard Mallory.
This is the opening of Butler, making its Michigan premiere at The Detroit Repertory Theatre. It’s been some time since I have seen a play set during the Civil War. But what becomes apparent all too quickly is that this story, based on real events, has spectacular resonance today at a time when legislatures are working overtime, it seems, to box citizens into sets of behaviors that they deem respectable.
Butler, written by Richard Strand, reminds us in provocative and often humorous ways that the lawyers who attempt to write preposterous laws filled with bigotry, prejudice and hubris can also be undone by clever lawyering on the other side of the argument intent on upholding the spirit, as well as the letter of the constitution.
Todd Hissong is perfectly cast as General Ben Butler, drafted into the Union Army as a brigadier general from his law practice, and weeks later promoted to major general. Butler, who admits to voting for Jefferson Davis at the Democratic Convention, is a proud detail man with a thick layer of sarcasm to make his points. He starts every conversation believing he is the smartest man in the room, yet remains open to be proved wrong. He is a man of beautiful contradictions. Is he a racist? Is he an abolitionist? A general? None of the above. He is a lawyer who worships the constitution, and so there is always hope for him to do the right thing. This becomes part of the humor that keeps the play aloft as his underling, Lieutenant Kelly (Peter Podolski) and even runaway slave Mallory (Christian Williams) pick up quick that the way to Butler’s heart is to match wit and sarcasm with him.
The crux of the story is that President Lincoln has stated that negro slaves picked up by union soldiers or running away to Union bases will be returned to their owners. This edict is backed up by the Fugitive Slave Act of a decade earlier. On top of that, there are rules in the Articles of War about confiscating personal property. Indeed, Confederate Major Cary (Robert Grossman) turns up to demand Mallory and two other runaways be returned to their rightful owner, his own commanding officer who, we think, might just be Shepard Mallory’s natural father.
Though the story plays out entirely in Butler’s office, Butler often has the feel of a taut courtroom drama without the formality of a judge presiding. Christian Williams is splendid, depicting the slave who knows how to read and write and is far more intelligent than he would have people think. He plays to Strand’s character–wary and confident at the same time, as Butler observes–beautifully. Podolski’s transformation from someone who just wants to be rid of Mallory to one who won’t turn him over to Major Cary for fear he will be shot, is done with ease as Mr. Podolski handles Strand’s character with terrific craft to keep him credible and funny at the same time. Mr. Grossman, in addition to looking like he walked out of 1863, plays the proud but overmatched Cary to visual perfection and hits just the right notes as takes his comeuppance.
The simple static set of Butler’s office, by Harry Wetzel, is just right, and instantly made me feel like I was watching a scene from the 1860s. Director Barbara Busby keeps the story tight and right in front of you. She lets the actors be the actors. The whole play is as tight as a well-written legal brief…but with lots of natural laughs that emerge from the characters, not slapped in.
Bottom Line: Butler beautifully captures timeless principles of right and wrong despite the shortcomings of the law and the people who write them and sign them into enforcement. And that is as relevant a theme today as it was in the time of Lincoln and Davis. We haven’t come as far as we’d like to think in 155 years.