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Eric Hoffmann and Shane Taylor in Butler. Photo by Matthew Holler

If you were casting about for the most unlikely ideas for a successful comedy, then a play focusing on an escaped slave’s plight in the early days of the Civil War would probably be high on the list. That’s one reason Richard Strand’s Butler, now playing at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating, is such a pleasant surprise—and a testimony to the skills of the playwright.

The piece, in its first-ever production south of the Mason-Dixon Line, is based on an actual historical event, although it’s hard to believe anyone would have seen much humor in the tale at the time. Major Gen. Benjamin Butler (Eric Hoffmann), a sherry-sipping Lincoln-appointed lawyer with no formal military training, has recently assumed charge of Fort Monroe, a crucially located point in the divided state of Virginia, which claims to have just seceded. He’s also an irascible fellow, and, like many lawyers, one to whom words carry specific and significant meaning.

Thus he spends the first 15 minutes of the play dressing down his unfortunate subordinate, Lieutenant Kelly (Joe Ditmyer) over his use of the word “demands.” Kelly is a West Pointer, but he’s not really one to match wits with his superior officer, and yet the play-by-play between these two is already highly amusing.

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Joe Ditmyer and Hoffmann. Photo by Matthew Holler

That’s all before the real heart of the play—and the issuer of those “demands”—arrives in the person of fugitive slave Shepard Mallory (Shane Taylor). Mallory and several other slaves have reached the fort in hopes of finding freedom, or at least to work at the fort in support of the Union Army. Butler is bound, by duty and by law in the form of the Fugitive Slave Act, to send them all back to their owner—which will most likely mean certain death for Mallory.

That’s partly because Mallory is, by his own admission, difficult. A most unusual slave, this one, both smart and stubborn, and his use of language captivates Butler even as he’s outraged by the slave’s eventual assertion that the two of them have a lot in common.

I won’t reveal the stratagem that Butler eventually employs to prevent a Southern officer (Jim Sorensen), sent to retrieve the slaves, from doing so, because that would spoil some of the fun as Strand and his characters twist and turn on the way to the situation’s outcome. But Hoffmann, Taylor, Ditmyer and Sorensen (in the show’s briefest role, but in a pivotal scene), working at a high level under the sharp direction of Jason Cannon, succeed in making Butler a delight.

All the clever wordplay and comic escalations don’t mask the serious nature of what’s at stake here. Today’s battles between North and South may be more a matter of beliefs and backgrounds than geographic boundaries, but the questions that Strand raises about civil rights, equality and other topics still resound today, as we are all too painfully aware.

You’ll come away from Butler both intrigued and entertained. The production continues through Feb. 26 at the Keating; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.

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