Last night, I saw New Jersey Repertory Company's production of Butler, currently showing at 59E59 in New York. Richard Strand's comedy delves into a little known incident in the career of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, one of the more fascinating if less famous figures of the U.S. Civil War.
The other standout performance comes from John G. Williams, who plays Shepard Mallory, an escaped slave who takes refuge in a fort commanded by Butler at the start of the Civil War. Mallory is an odd man who knows he's odd. When Butler asks the escaped slave why he has been whipped, Mallory replies that it was for not seeing things the same way others did. Butler thinks this is ridiculous, but Mallory observes that the whole war is a result of men seeing things different ways, and either the North is going to whip the South for not seeing things its way, or the South will most certainly whip the North.
This is a play that shows men (and this is a masculine world, with an all-male cast) struggling to understand the great and complicated events surrounding them. Butler, who is used to following the law and doing what he is supposed to do, is confronted by a world in which the usual rules no longer apply. He must make a way for himself without precedent, all the while knowing that his actions could have tremendous consequences.
So what to do with the three escaped slaves who have taken refuge in his fort? Return them to their owners in accordance with the laws of the U.S. government--a government those owners have renounced? But if he gives refuge to the men, how many more will come knocking at the fort's door?
Bulter is a fascinating exploration of history that uses humor and pathos, showing the human element that often shapes our world in unexpected ways. It's playing until August 28th. You can get more information here: