Pittsfield, Mass. – First things first. “Butler,” playing at Barrington Stage Company in Pittfield, Mass. through June 13 is not a play about a White House butler- or any other butler. Butler is the name of a major-general who inadvertently shaped the Union’s policy towards slavery during the Civil War.
When three runaway slaves appear at Fort Monroe seeking sanctuary from the southern officer who owns them, Butler must decide whether the men are property who must be returned to their owners, or can they be categorized in another way permitting them to stay safe at the fort.
Because the play is based on an actual, but overlooked historical incident, it is not a spoiler to say Butler’s decision was the framework for the Emancipation Proclamation.
There is always the danger that a work that deals with an important moment in history can be dry or didactic. Director Joseph Discher avoids that fate, indeed he reverses it. “Butler” is one of the funniest plays you will experience.
Thanks to a marvelous performance by David Schramm as Butler the work, at times, plays close to farce. That’s because the playwright Richard Strand has created a man who finds himself in a perplexing position as he becomes boxed into making a decision he would prefer to avoid.
Schramm creates a memorable Butler. He makes it clear Butler is secure in wielding authority because he believes he is always the smartest man in the room. Barely a month into his command and tenure in the military this former lawyer from New England finds himself in conflict with a man who also believes he is the smartest man in the room.
Shepard Mallory is self-confident to the point that it makes him seem arrogant and dislikeable. He is articulate, clever and determined. He is also a slave who demands Butler finds a way to secure his safety.
The debate between a man who should be powerless and a stern man of power is as funny as it is disarming. Butler’s growing frustration with his manipulation by Mallory is hilarious, thanks to Schramm’s genius for finding the comedy of the moment without losing the gravity of the situation. It is very early in the summer season but I doubt that we will experience a finer performance than the one offer by Schramm at Barrington Stage.
The performances by the threesupporting actors are excellent, but it is Schramm who dominates the play. Indeed, the play needs a perfect performance for Butler. Though the play is funny, insightful and entertaining - it is also very talky, extremely contrived and it’s two hour and twenty minute length is at least a half hour too long.
But flaws or not, “Butler” is a delightful and delicious start to the Barrington Stage Company season.
“Butler” Through June 13 at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, Mass. Performances 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Mainees 4 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays and 4 p.m. June 4 and 11 . www.barringtonstageco.org 413-236-8888.
Bob Goepfert is the arts editor for the Troy Record.
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