Ben Butler now playing at North Coast Rep through November 21st is based on a true historical event from the Civil War. Instead of rifles, this play takes on this historical battle with witty repartee and some thought-provoking arguments about deciding what is the right decision, what is the legal decision, and whether those may be the same things.
Major Benjamin Butler (Richard Baird) has taken command of Fort Monroe in Virginia when he is informed by Lieutenant Kelly (Brian Mackey) that a group of escaped slaves have arrived and are seeking sanctuary. Despite the current war going on, Butler who was a lawyer before the Army knows he has to return the slaves to their “rightful owner” as is the law. Shepard Mallory (Brandon J.Pierce) is one of the slaves and will not bend until he is able to speak with Butler.
This event did occur and the ramification of the decisions made had a ripple effect that influenced even up to the White House. The play attempts to fill in the blanks on what these conversations looked like, both between Butler and Shepard and later with Major Cary (Bruce Turk) from the Confederate Army who has come to collect the slaves and take them back.
Butler and Shepard have a lot in common; they’re both smart and articulate, not afraid to argue for what they believe in, and can be very stubborn. Yet these comparable skills earned the White man the title of Major General and the Black man whip marks across his back.
Pierce as Shepard is excellent as a man who knows his strengths and weaknesses, and also that he has nothing left to lose. He pushes Butler out of his legal comfort zone as they discuss Shepard’s status. Baird as Butler has a sharp mind and compassion behind all his bluster and conveys the consternation these events have caused a man who thought he was doing the right thing by following the letter of the law.
Mackey and Turk are very good in their supporting roles, but this play really belongs to Pierce and Baird. Though at times self-indulgent in its own clever arguments, the play directed by David Ellenstein keeps up the pace so nothing feels bogged down. The office set designed by Marty Burnett, with costumes designed by Renatta Lloyd, and lighting by Matthew Novotny bring everything together.
In the end, the play doesn’t make Butler and Shepard into a band of brothers, but more respectful of each other’s strong character, which at times may be exasperating but is also fascinating. The play shows that animosity is borne more from ignorance than from true aversion, and taking the time to learn is what creates real advocacy.
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