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.|
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|
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.|
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]