Review: BEN BUTLER at Washington Stage Guild

Now through April 16th.

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For the Washington Stage Guild's final production of its 2022-2023 season, the Undercroft Theater has been dressed up in dark wood, Civil War maps, and American flags. It is the office of a Union Army Major General based in Fort Monroe, Virginia-the eponymous protagonist of Ben Butler, on stage now through April 16.

Benjamin Butler, an actual historical figure, served as a commanding officer in the Union Army throughout the Civil War despite his limited military experience. He was stationed at Fort Monroe on the day Shephard Mallory and two other enslaved men arrived at the fort in hope of protection from the Union Army. Butler is forced to choose between abiding by the law (specifically, the Fugitive Slave Law, which Butler had previously been determined to uphold) and saving the lives of Mallory and other escapees. His choice to offer sanctuary marks a pivotal event in the course of the war and U.S. history.

Ben Butler, written by Richard Strand and directed by Kasi Campbell, imagines what the climactic conversations leading up to this event may have looked like. The play opens as Butler's adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly (Yury Lomakin), enters the room and informs General Butler (Stephen Patrick Martin), "There is a Negro slave outside who is demanding to speak with you." He reveals that the escaped slaves are seeking sanctuary, which Butler dismisses. He is, after all, a law-honoring man, and the law is clear: the men are to be returned to their owners. Lt. Kelly exits, tasked with informing the escapees of this fact.

Martin's Butler is clever, a man who enjoys playing rhetorical games with his conversation partners to assert his intelligence and authority. He meets his match in Shepard Mallory, who demonstrates his own rhetorical power before he even steps on stage: Lt. Kelly returns to Butler's office, simultaneously pleading Mallory's case and fuming at the man's refusal to leave. Butler finally agrees to see him.

Shepard Mallory (Theodore Sapp) enters, warm, bold, and determined. He and Butler square off; their philosophies and beliefs clash. Mallory makes his case for sanctuary and Butler grapples with the moral dilemma before him, which threatens his law-and-order worldview.

Butler is continuously surprised by Mallory, revealing the extent of his ignorance regarding the truth of slavery and Black people. Mallory's intelligence, literacy, wit, fear, empathy-Mallory's humanity-and the violence he has survived all seem to throw Butler off his balance. It's enough to convince him to help Mallory. Ben Butler may be the titular character, but it is Shepard Mallory who ultimately upends the future of the Union, of the war, and of the country.

These are rich, complex figures brought to life on stage by Martin and Sapp. It's a delight to watch these two actors work together in this quick, dramatic, and funny show about what it takes to change another's mind, fight for freedom, and institute true justice.

Ben Butler is on stage at The Washington Stage Guild's Undercroft Theatre through April 16, 2023. The run time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Purchase tickets Click Here.

Main photo: Theodore Sapp as Shepard Mallory and Stephen Patrick Martin as Maj. Gen. Ben Butler. By DJ Corey Photography.


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