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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

We are fighting to uphold the law. We can't suddenly decide to break the law in order to uphold it. — Butler

Sure you can. You're a lawyer. You can twist the law. You can make the law be anything you want it to be. You can make a law mean the opposite of what it's supposed to mean. That's what lawyers do, isn't it? — Mallory

Left to Right: John G. Williams & Ames Adamson (Photo Credit: SuzAnne Barabas). L-R: John G. Williams (as Shepard Mallory) and Ames Adamson (as Benjamin Butler)
Former Massachusetts attorney Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson) may be insecure and ill-prepared to assume his role of Major General in 1861 at the start of the Civil War. And he also doubts if he is up to meeting the unexpected challenge he is faced with at Fort Monroe in Virginia where he is newly in command. The war has barely begun and Butler must decide if he is obliged to disobey the law of the land wherein a slave must be returned to their owner. He ponders this with resolve when confronted by Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams) a runaway slave who has asked for sanctuary at this strategic post.

Butler is an excellent and engrossing play laced with humor by playwright Richard Strand. It is comprised of a series of blistering confrontations primarily between Butler and the unexpectedly literate and erudite Mallory. Although it is charged with socio-political inquiry, it is also fueled by its amusingly discharged discourse between the authoritarian general and the fervently argumentative slave who is making his plea to be conscripted into the Union Army. It becomes more of a major issue when Butler's refusal to return the slave could mean his court-martial and a certain death sentence for the slave.

The dilemma reaches a peak when Butler is visited by an arrogant Confederate Major Cary (David Stiller) who, acting under authority of the slave's owner, demands his return. Under Butler's command is Lt. Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), who is generally confounded by his superior's decisions.

Strand, who says that he was made aware of the real incident by way of a footnote in a Lincoln biography, is chairman of the theater department at Mt. San Antonio College where he teaches "History of Theater and Playwriting." He is to be commended for making his play a thoroughly entertaining and dramatically informed return to this incident. The director Joseph Discher, noted for his laudable 2002 to 2010 te tenure as Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, has encouraged splendid performances from the four actors, each giving vivid portrayals of the play's well-defined characters.

The play is set within Butler's office, as effectively designed by Jessica Parks. It has the modest decor of a masculine study with an easy chair, book shelves, a throw rug, a Lincoln portrait, wall map and a flag. In it, Butler presides, deploying all the techniques and tactics of a skilled lawyer. Adamson takes the disagreeable personality of his character quite seriously even as he toys with and tests the patience of those in his presence. Mostly bald except for the long black hair that fills up the back of his head and a formidable mustache, Adamson is at his best bellowing, the better to keep his adversaries on guard. "If I heard myself talking, I would consider better what I was saying."

Williams is impressive as the formidably assertive Mallory who has led a small group of slaves (unseen) of slaves to the fort. Tough, insolent, and as argumentative as is Butler, Mallory is willing to risk everything for freedom. The tide begins to turn when Butler realizes that the slaves who are being used to build bridges for the Confederacy and may be held and considered as contraband.

Condescension marks Stiller fine performance as Major Cary just as nonplussed compliance defines Sterling as Lt. Kelly. The play moves along as swiftly as the twisting and turning of the decisions being made will undoubtedly help in turning the tide of the war with Lincoln's unveiling of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. There is likely more to be heard about Butler following this world premiere.

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Butler by Richard Strand
Directed by Joseph Discher

Cast: Ames Adamson (General Benjamin F. Butler), Benjamin Sterling (Lt. Kelly) David Stiller (Major Cary), John G, Williams (Shepard Mallory)
Stage Manager: Jennifer Tardibuono
Scenic Design and Properties: Jessica parks
Lighting Design: Jill Nagle
Sound Design: Merek Royce Press
Costume Design: Patricia E. Doherty
Fight Director: Brad Lemons
Running Time: Two hours including intermission
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ
(732) 229-3166 Tickets: $40
Performances: Thursday and Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays 3 and 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm.
From 06/12/14 Opened 06/14/14 Ends 07/13/14
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 06/14/14

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