Friday, January 8, 2016

'Butler' at the Phoenix Theatre: Civil War drama delves into our national identity, with coded secrets and words that clarify or obscure

The first scene in the Phoenix Theatre's "Butler" will stun anyone inclined to think a play based on an incident in the Civil War ought to have the pace, flow, and sheer ordinariness of realism.

As Major General Benjamin Butler upbraids his adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly, over nice distinctions between a few pairs of words, you might feel you are being asked to manipulate a Stoppardesque Rubik's Cube. But more than verbal distinctions are involved. Richard Strand's two-act drama is steeped in the American burden of slavery and race in its most consequential era.

The first scene's word play is fundamentally all serious, a pedantic way Butler has of covering his insecurity as a
Gen. Butler deals with escaped slave Shepard Mallory as his adjutant stands guard.
lawyer recently thrust out of civilian life into command of a Union fort in Virginia early in the conflict. As seen on opening night Thursday, his playfulness comes out of hiding from time to time, but essentially Butler is a man used to success and determined to continue on that path with his nation in crisis. The way of war, however, is to upend peacetime standards of success and erect its own on imperiled foundations.

Stephen Hunt embodied the title character's bluster, keen intelligence, and sturdy sense of propriety.  Butler's personal moral and legal crisis about the duty to return runaway slaves to their rightful owners is also the nation's. The problem, rooted in the Fugitive Slave Act, is introduced in that word-crazy opening scene as Butler spars with the younger but more seasoned junior officer, played with long-suffering restraint and erectness of bearing by Brandon Alstott. (I have no military experience, but isn't a salute always delivered with the fingers together, not apart? It seemed the sole, and minor, flaw in Alstott's performance. [Update (1/12/16): Dale McFadden, the play's director, wrote to inform me that this style of salute is authentic.[)

Ramon Hutchins as a slave with one undaunted mission
Leading a group of three escaped slaves from a nearby plantation, Shepard Mallory (Ramon Hutchins) insists upon being sheltered at the fort. Butler's inclination to return Mallory and his colleagues to their owner is checked only by his basic decency and a suspicion, encouraged by Shepard, that he and the leader of the escapees are temperamentally akin. Hutchins conveyed the vast difference in status between the two men, as well as the equality of their intelligence.

Guest director Dale McFadden draws from Hunt and Hutchins fiercely galvanic performances. Both characters are clever and rhetorically gifted. Shepard's humanity and keen powers of observation clearly appeal to Butler and eventually to Lt. Kelly, whose hostility toward the slave gradually softens. The catalyst for that is Butler's magnificent lawyerly rejection of any obligation to return the three escapees to the evident brutality of slavery. Shepard's feisty history as the property of the Mallory family, plus his role as ringleader of the escape, make his execution a virtual certainty.

Doug Powers as Major Cary, Stephen Hunt as General Butler.
In the crucial supporting role of Major Cary, the Confederate officer assigned to deliver their owner's demand for the slaves' return, Doug Powers was the picture of Southern good breeding challenged by a staunch need to defend the basic inhumanity of the Confederate cause. Every gesture and expression illuminated the character; he made Cary's precise pulling off of his gloves and tucking them in his belt mesmerizing.

The back-and-forth between the two officers is not only dramatically compelling, but also a lesson in the rationalizing strategies of each side. Butler's stratagem ensuring that Cary will turn aside from his mission and return to the Confederacy empty-handed was beautifully played.

Jeffery Martin's set design created the picture of a sparsely but appropriately furnished general's office, and the clear sense of being lived in as the lights came up on the second act made for a telling contrast with its unsettled look in Act 1. Michael Moffatt's lighting indicated different times of day subtly, and there was just a suggestion of a period glow of the kind audiences might recognize from old photographs. Emily McGee's costumes looked authentic, with the blue and gray contrast speaking volumes in the negotiation scene, leading up to the turning point of its broken-off sherry toast.

That climactic event was echoed in terms foreshadowing the Union's eventual victory by Shepard's proposal in the final scene. Other victories stemming from the Civil War's causes have yet to be realized by the nation that sadly still requires them.

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]