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Verbal games refract Civil War episode in ‘Butler’

Tosin Morohunfola (left) and Greg Vinkler in the Northlight Theatre production of Richard Strand's "Butler." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Alternately intriguing and irritating, Richard Strand ‘s “Butler” is a verbal mash-up about an emblematic if largely unknown episode from the early days of the Civil War.

Drawing on the brisk, often brusque protocols of military language, the quaint formality of the “Southern gentleman” style of speaking, the brainy (and some might say warping) reasoning of legalese, the formidable vocabulary of a slave who has learned to read, as well as sardonic locutions that sound very much of this moment, Strand has given us history with a “you are hip to it all” wink-and-nod.

It takes a couple of scenes to acclimate to the style, which at many moments can seem rather hamfisted in its depiction of a historical moment. But easy accessibility and the historical equivalent of Photoshopping seem to be the rule these days, offering an entertaining way into stories that might otherwise be deemed tedious. (If you detect a bit of ambivalence here, you are on the mark.) And by the time it’s all over, a good deal has been learned and many spirited mind games have been played out in “Butler.”

‘BUTLER’

Recommended

When: Through April 17

Where: Northlight Theatre,

9501 Skokie Blvd. Skokie

Tickets: $25 – $79

Info: (847)673-6300;

www.northlight.org

Run time: 2 hours

with one intermission

Strand’s play is set at Fort Monroe, a citadel at the mouth of the James River in Virginia — a place that remained in Union hands throughout most of the Civil War, even though Virginia itself became part of the Confederacy.

In charge of the operation there is Maj. Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler (Greg Vinkler in absolutely sparkling form), a controversial New England-bred lawyer and politician who could hardly be called an enlightened liberal spirit. Yet ironically enough, Butler is credited with formulating the legal idea of effectively freeing fugitive slaves by defining them as “contraband in the service of military objectives.” In this way they could not be subject to the Fugitive Slave Act that required all runaway slaves to be returned to their masters. Strand’s play is an attempt to imagine just how and why Butler’s crucial decree may have evolved.

Tim Monsion (from left), Nate Burger and Greg Vinkler in the Northlight Theatre production of Richard Strand’s “Butler.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Tim Monsion (from left), Nate Burger and Greg Vinkler in the Northlight Theatre production of Richard Strand’s “Butler.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The escaped slave who is the catalyst for all this parsing is Shepard Mallory (the easily charismatic Tosin Morohunfola, who captures his character’s sarcasm and pain, as well as his delight in argument). Along with two fellow slaves, he has arrived on shore and “demanded” that the general’s young, West Point-trained guard, Lt. Kelly (Nate Burger, who skillfully manages to maintain his dignity, though he must serve as Butler’s “straight man”), take him to see the general. This is most irregular behavior, to be sure. But there is something in Mallory that won’t take “no” for an answer, and more than that, he is exceptionally smart and eloquent, and among the relatively few slaves who learned how to read (a skill considered dangerous by slave-holders).

The name Mallory also is familiar to Butler, and, as it happens, Shepard’s “owner” is a lawyer (and perhaps even “a little more than kin and less than kind” to his slave). And the “slave” engages in such bristling verbal combat with Butler that the officer becomes more than a little fascinated by the man, and even offers him the chance to just flee and go North. But Mallory refuses and instead continues to press his case. Push comes to shove when he supplies vital information to Butler upon the arrival of Maj. Cary (Tim Monsion, who brings just the right level of hauteur to his role), the quintessential Southerner who has come to claim the three slaves, and more.

Under Stuart Carden’s brisk if hardly subtle direction (with Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s handsome stone-and-timber set, full of Victorian era furnishings, neatly suggesting an office within a fort), the four excellent actors create vivid portraits of men with considerably different tuning, training and motivations whose contempt for each other ultimately shifts into grudging respect.

Without divulging too much, it is worth noting that in the play’s first act we learn Mallory was brutally beaten by his master. The sight of his scars makes the true horror of slavery palpable, but it also renders much of the play’s knowingly glib talk somewhat superfluous. Yes, watching “Butler” is very much an exercise in ambivalence.