Gloucester Stage: Ben Butler Triumphs

By Tom Hauck

Now at Gloucester Stage Company through August 25, Ben Butler, written by Richard Strand and directed by Joseph Discher, tells the gripping story of the day in 1861—just after the South seceded from the Union and war was imminent—when three escaped slaves made their way to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. (It helps to know that although Virginia was part of the Confederacy, Fort Monroe, located on the coast, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.)

This comic play with a serious message is based on real events. On May 27, 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler made his famous “contraband” decision, or “Fort Monroe Doctrine,” determining that escaping male slaves who reached Union lines would be considered contraband—that is, part of the rebel war effort—and not be returned to bondage. The order resulted in thousands of slaves fleeing to Union lines around Fort Monroe.

The cast is superb. Ames Adamson shines as the gruff but good-hearted ex-lawyer, Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler. He’s well practiced in the role—this is the third time he’s done it, and he owns the part. Butler is ably assisted by Doug Bowen-Flynn as Lieutenant Kelly, who has the thankless job of interpreting the General’s mercurial pronouncements. And David Debeck admirably portrays the hapless Major John B. Cary, the Confederate officer charged with demanding from Butler the return of the slaves.
But the story’s propulsive engine comes from Shane Taylor as Shepard Mallory, the only one of the slave trio we meet, who takes it upon himself to single-handedly convince a reluctant Ben Butler to give the slaves shelter. Malloy is the disruptor and the catalyst for change. His negotiating skills confound even the sharp legal mind of Butler, who quickly finds himself facing an opponent who knows how to alternately charm, cajole, and threaten his way to his goal.

And as a note of local interest, after the war the real Ben Butler settled in our own Bayview neighborhood, at the present-day Ames estate, and served as the 33rd governor of Massachusetts.

With a running time of about two hours plus intermission, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the drama escalates and the triumphant ending unfolds. See this engaging and insightful production before it closes on August 25.

And be sure to reserve your seats for the next thrilling production at GSC: The first regional production of the Broadway smash hit The Lifespan of a Fact. Directed by Sam Weisman and starring Mickey Solis, Lindsay Crouse, and Derek Speedy, this drama explores the moral quandaries of what creative license is allowed in literary nonfiction, and dramatizes the working relationship between writer and fact checker. The Lifespan of a Fact opens August 30.

For ticket information, call 978-281-4433, or go to Don’t wait!

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