By Richard Strand
Directed by Stuart Carden
At Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Historical tidbit unfolds into a humorous yet profound twist of history
Playwright Richard Strand takes a historical factual situation and turns it into an often funny yet profound drama about a most influential method for the Union to free the slaves, as well as gather personnel to further their war effort. It’s 1861, the Civil War has just begun, and Major General Butler (Greg Vinkler) has just taken command of Union Fort Monroe, Virginia. Butler is a sherry-drinking lawyer turned soldier and close friend of President Lincoln.
His adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly (Nate Burger), is a spit-polished West Pointer who is dedicated to military discipline and General Butler. When three runaway slaves arrive at Fort Monroe, Lt. Kelly informs and cajoles the General to meet with Shepard Mallory (Tosin Morohunfola), the spokesman for the three runaways.
After, Butler and Mallory verbally debate, communicate, and spare about personalities, freedom and exactly what a slave is: property or a person? When Butler tells Mallory that he must by law and the rules of war return the three slaves to their owner (here a Confederate officer), Mallory strongly objects to Butler. The verbal trauma begins as respect, bonding, and mutual personalities converge. Mallory holds his own with the clever, articulate Butler as he equals the lawyer-general’s theory. Eventually, the two form a mutual respectful position that leads to Butler formulating the legal notion of slaves being defined as “contraband,” thus allowing the Union to conscript them as war material. This backdoor method eventually freed thousands of slaves during the Civil War.
Playwright Richard Strand took this meeting of slaves and a military commander and spun it into a clever, witty, often humorous war of words filled with terrific performances. Tosin Morohunfola is winning as Mallory, the educated, determined, brave slave who stood up to a strong-willed lawyer-general. Those scenes between the two are marvelously exciting. Greg Vinkler, long one of our finest Chicago actors, is at his quirky comic best, yet cleverly manipulative as Butler. The scene when Butler tears apart the smug Confederate Major Cary (the rightly obnoxious Tim Monson) are precious. Nate Burger offers stiff formal conic relief.
Butler is an idea play that uses strong characters that humanize the theoretical concepts. The performances by the entire cast, especially Vinkler’s Butler, make this play stage worthy. Don’t miss it!
At Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL. call 847-673-6300, www.northlight.org, tickets $25 – $79, Wednesdays 1 & 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission.