PORTLAND – It’s not often a play in a professional theatrical setting gets an immediate standing ovation before the lights are fully dimmed at final curtain.
It’s also virtually unheard of for any kind of work – creative or historical – dealing with slavery and the Civil War to receive a healthy dose of laughs and lightheartedness.
Which all in all is what makes Portland Stage’s current run of Richard Strand’s “Ben Butler” a rarity in the realm of live stage performances.
The show, which runs through Oct. 21, is directed by Daniel Burson, and based loosely on the 1838 Colby College graduate Benjamin Butler (1818-1893), whose military service was somewhat undistinguished, even though he had left his life as an attorney to find himself a Major General in the Union Army.
Butler’s time in uniform ended up having mixed reviews; however, he is now known as having been one of the earliest Northern officials in the pre-Emancipation Proclamation era to figure out a way to justify not returning escaped slaves to their Southern owners, as the law then called for.
This is where the story finds us: May 1861, at Virginia’s Fort Monroe, a blue island in a sea of gray, in Butler’s (Ron Orbach) office. His adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly (Michael Dix Thomas) informs the general that presumed runaway slave Shepard Mallory (Cornelius Davidson) has come to the fort with a few others and has requested an audience.
Entering the fray to complicate matters is Major Cary (Corey Gagne), a Confederate artillery officer who arrives looking to return Mallory to his rightful owner, a Southern colonel – as well as allegedly to collect intelligence on the Union fortifications.
It could all go smoothly, of course, but then why would Strand even bother writing the play? The fact that he did, however, is good news for anyone who chooses to join this production’s audience, as director Burson had his charges in fine form as early as opening weekend.
Gagne was suitably flamboyant and spiked with arrogance just enough to be annoying, but not losing the ability to caricature his Major Carey, all while keeping several key elements true to history.
Thomas played the young West Point graduate Kelly with ramrod rigidity, though also yielded to a somewhat warmer rendition as we learn more about the adjutant’s military background, which was decidedly not privileged. Also, Thomas’ comedic timing almost stole the show.
I was very interested to see how Davidson would be able to mix in humor with the inevitable whipping scars he so poignantly exposed, but his mix of humility with volcanic surges of fear and anger were exactly what his Mallory needed to get on an equal footing with Butler.
Finally, Orbach was as distasteful and sympathetic a Butler as one could portray on such a fine line. The general reeked with sarcasm in a way that one might expect of an attorney who had become thoroughly annoyed with the proceedings before him, but who also had command authority which granted him a well-expressed latitude no lawyer would ever possess in court.
The production standards of Portland Stage were also on full display.
Executive and artistic director Anita Stewart’s set and costumes were flush with her expert attention to detail, right down to the red piping on Major Cary’s uniform, signifying the specialty of field artillery, and overhead bricked arches, a period characteristic of Virginia military architecture, particularly popular in the Tidewater area when Fort Monroe stood watch as a Union stronghold.
Lights by Gregg Carville and sound by Chris Fitze were timely and enhancing. Myles C. Hatch’s stage management continued its first-class level. The show ran just a bit more than 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission included.
As someone who has taught college-level history in the past and continues to do so, albeit sporadically, to this day, there’s no shame in admitting that “Ben Butler” surprised me.
I sat down expecting the requisite takeaways most Civil War creations offer up to us – such as the painful and searingly human “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez, which Portland stage put on to packed houses last year.
Yet Strand’s play, although set just a hour down the road from Lopez’s Richmond, was taking place almost 4 years earlier at a time when slavery had not yet been deep-sixed, but the issue of runaways was both a logistical and political hot potato.
The real Major General Benjamin Butler, who in later years went on to be elected Governor of Massachusetts, was very much in the thick of all that, and ended up making some historical decisions as a result of his past legal training – and importantly, his temperament.
As such, Butler’s well known personality must have been one of the sparks that had Strand injecting comedic elements into the play.
It’s really brilliantly done: just feasible and close enough to history, while full of fancy and whimsy to the point that the playwright’s subtle intent is clear: how could there even be a question about helping runaways? Someone had to figure this out.
But those are today’s mores, not the mid-19th century’s. Strand has deftly put together a reason to laugh at all this, and Portland Stage’s cast and crew polished the delivery to a sheen of talent that did the story proud.
Which left me jumping out to the aisle, whistling and whooping approval of the excellence in “Ben Butler,” along with the rest of the packed house – which somehow beat me to my feet in raucous abandon when the final lights dimmed.
“Ben Butler” runs through October 21 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.
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