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Photo by Carol Rosegg

Period pieces can often be tricky. Many of them either rehash the same material or are more dull than a Ben Carson podcast. So, what a pleasant surprise is Butler, Richard Strand’s historical drama-comedy that reveals a fascinating and somewhat unknown story from the Civil war.

It is unclear whether Strand took poetic license for his intimate four person play. I would venture to guess that he did. Nonetheless, Major General Franklin Butler (Ames Adamson) did in fact exist and, as a high ranking officer in the Union Army, he was faced with a major dilemma. Immediately after his state of Virgina had seceded from the Union, he was informed that a group of slaves (Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend) have crossed the James River and are seeking asylum.

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Photo by Carol Rosegg

We only see one of the slaves, Mallory (John G. Williams ) as he begins a master mind discussion with Butler. Mallory is both educated and street smart. Butler,with a law degree and military rank,is no dummy either. The pair begin an intellectual and, at times amusing plot to make sure they can pull off the escape plan. Both were well aware of the perilous outcomes if Butler turned the slaves over to their owners, so they devised a plot wherein the slaves would be considered “contraband”. Certainly it painted human life as collateral, but it led to an important decision that historians still debate as the ending of slavery.

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Strand’s drama, which premiered in 2014 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, is a crisp cat and mouse game with snappy dialogue and verbal jousting. It seems rather inappropriate to consider  it a comedy, but Strand has managed to infuse his negotiations with razor sharp wit, all of which is delivered by a top notch cast under Joseph Discher‘s excellent direction.

The most disturbing take away from it however, is the commentary on human life. Sure, slavery ended with the civil war and yet 150 years later we’re still a fractured nation, arguing the value of humanity and debating whose lives matters most.

Butler plays Off Broadway at 59 E 59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues.) For tickets and info. click here.