Theatre Review: ‘Ben Butler’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of ‘Ben Butler’ at Kavinoky Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

It’s a heck of a way to start a new job. Ben Butler still has boxes to unpack in his Fort Monroe, Virginia office. He’s a Union general and Virginia has just voted to join the Confederacy. His West Point-educated Lieutenant is an over-eager servant who aims to please but can’t help but fall short. And then a trio of runaway slaves appear at the Fort. One even has the audacity to demand a moment of General Butler’s time. A slave that makes demands. Astonishing.

‘Ben Butler’ is one to see.

Perfectly-paced, sharp, and witty, “Ben Butler” is based on a real moment in the American Civil War with haunting voices that still ring true in 2018. Who is really free? Are all Negroes (his word) the same? When is an established protocol wrong? Richard Strand drives several subtle messages home in this piece, woven between bursts of clever word play.

John Fredo plays General Butler expertly. Stout, sturdy, with great fringe of hair, he tosses smart banter with ease. No surprise that he’s a lawyer with just a month of military experience. Christopher Evans is a hoot as career Army officer Lt. Kelly who  is trying to prove his worth to his new commander. Evans has the Army walk-stop-pivot down pat, especially when he heads for the door only to stop at the sound of Butler’s voice. He learned on day one that very few people can make a demand on Major Butler. So when the feistiest slave Shepard Mallory demands – er, requests – a meeting, Lt. Kelly has to deliver the news. It’s here where the underscoring lessons begin: Lt. Kelly doesn’t know the names of the escapees. Is it because they’re black or because they aren’t military issue soldiers? He does admit that he’s none too fond of Mallory and his brash and bold ways. But something happens when Mallory and Butler engage: they can match wits and words. They have reasoned and reasonable discussions.

Patrick Coleman shows his real acting chops with this role, swiftly shifting from swagger to flashes of well-placed reluctance.  Watching Fredo and Coleman dance with their words is brilliant, a tribute to a smart script and Robert Waterhouse’s tight direction. Rounding out the cast is Tom Loughlin as Major Cary, a confederate general who’s back to claim the slaves-as-property to return them to their owner. Loughlin is lovingly detestable as the pompous and not-too-bright general who can’t admit that people are people and that America is poised for change. Love Fredo and Loughlin’s belly to belly dialogue as generals with two points of view on the one law that governs them.

Once again David King’s set wins. Whitewashed walls behind rough stone with purposefully elegant appointments as props make a military office look like a gentleman’s library.

‘Ben Butler’ is one to see. The dialogue is clever: listen for symphonic reiteration with words. Those passages are there for a reason. The messages aren’t frozen in 1861: we still need them today. And there’s no substitute for rapier-sharp dialogue delivered by talented actors.

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“Ben Butler” runs until March 25, 2018 and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.