Taking place during the time of the Civil War, Butler is a tale of conscience, courage and transcendence. As Major General Benjamin Butler, Ames Adamson has risen to power but is faced with a decision that could change the game for slavery in America. Many of the themes surrounding a nation divided such as injustice, prejudice and lack of understanding remain extremely relevant today and are just as impactful with events occurring every day in our world. Instead of ignoring the issues or using power as the only weapon, Butler flips the script and uses empathy and understanding as a means to connect.
Under Joseph Discher’s thoughtful direction, Butler delves deeply into the human face of war and slavery, as Shepard Mallory (played by John G. Williams) is seeking refuge and requests to speak to Major General Butler about his life circumstances — making him his only hope at escaping to a new life of freedom. The interactions between Adamson and Williams are thrilling, as the two banter back and forth as they are reluctant to admit that they are more alike than meets the eye.
Trusty protector of General Butler, Benjamin Sterling’s Lieutenant Kelly keeps a careful eye on the two – taking his position very seriously as he is ready to strike at any potential harm that may be lurking. As Major Cary, David Sitler’s stoicism and authoritative nature are reflective of the cruelty and harsh reality of war on different groups of people.
The set and prop design by Jessica L. Parks are practical and well-ordered, with the central room being the office of General Butler where he spends most of his time. Personal touches such as custom sherry glasses for his drink of choice and his last name carved on furniture to designate his domain appear around the room.
Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty ensures that attire is well-tailored and spotless for a man of his status and indicates the difference in status for Mallory who wears tattered clothing that further reveals the whip marks on his back that bring to life how he is treated as a slave. In this case, the clothes don’t fully speak for who he is or will remain as Mallory raises his voice against the inequalities and doesn’t let his status define who he is or who he aspires to be.
This play mostly chooses the right balance when it comes to finding breaks in the tension and serious conversations and inserting witty chitchat and debating in the heat of the moment. There are times when reemphasis is not needed and becomes irritating, as the attempt at an extra laugh is not necessary when the sale has already been made.
Butler brings history to life in a way that doesn’t rely on the flash and intensity of larger productions. True and raw human vulnerability in an understated way is the formula that works for this timely and eye-opening play.
Butler (through August 28, 2016)
New Jersey Repertory Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours with one intermission