By John Lyle Belden
NOTE: Review also appears online with The Word (www.theygayword.com).
The most entertaining lesson this Black History Month only has one February weekend of performances, the comic drama “Butler” at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre through Sunday. It is also an important insight into the struggle to bring about the end of slavery, or to at least give African Americans some long-denied dignity.
Lawyer turned Union Army General Benjamin Franklin Butler (played by Stephen Hunt, who perfectly resembles historical photos of Butler), takes command of a fortress that by a fluke of geography is the only piece of Virginia still belonging to the North during the Civil War. As he’s settling in, he receives word of escaped slaves, led by Shepard Malloy (Ramon Hutchins), who insists on speaking to the General.
The opening scene, mainly a conversation between Butler and one of his junior officers (Brandon Alstott), helps set the tone for this play. We get a feel for Butler’s gruff personality and though his agitation over seemingly small details seems eccentric, we find ourselves “astonished” at how well it sets up the dry but sharp comedy of later scenes.
Hutchins is exceptional in a very complex role. His Malloy yearns for freedom, yet his intellect and impulsiveness make him his own worst enemy in a world where people like him aren’t allowed to get in the last word. Yet in one-on-one conversations with Butler, their verbal sparring challenges each other as well as the audience, even while extracting welcome yet un-guilty laughter.
Doug Powers appears as a Confederate Major sent to fetch the escaped slaves, ironically citing the laws of the Union his state was seceding from to compel Butler to return them to his custody. It is in this situation that the Union General reverts to lawyer mode and comes up with a loophole to keep Malloy and his companions in the fort. Note this is based on true events, including the legal means by which Butler manages to hold on to the “property” of a Southern slaveowner.
If an uplifting Civil War comedy can happen, anything is possible. See for yourself Feb. 4-7. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.