by Richard Strand
Directed by Jason Cannon
Florida Studio Theatre's Keating Mainstage
1241 Palm Ave., Sarasota, 941-366-9000
Through Feb. 21, 2016

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

There's something to be said for a well made play, especially when it is well written, performed, and directed—all of which applies, at Florida Studio Theatre, to Butler. It's named for General Benjamin Butler, who's gone in a few weeks from his legal practice to commanding the Union post at Ft. Monroe. Just after Virginia has left the USA, 1861, Butler finds himself facing Negro slaves who've escaped and are seeking sanctuary. The law requires they be returned to their owner. Will Butler find a way to legally satisfy his moral obligation? Would you believe the proceedings are absolutely the funniest imaginable? Well, they are.

Wonderful Eric Hoffman portrays Butler as blustery, sarcastic, authoritatively egocentric. Can he also prove warm and likeable? Watch the conversion of his assistant officer, West Point alum Lt. Kelly (expressive Joe Ditmeyer), you can't help joining his growing and final appreciation of how Butler handles being “astonished” at “demands” and “surprises” as well. The first of the astonishing comes Shane Taylor's determined slave representative Shepard Mallory, who proves to be somewhat of a complement to the General. Mallory's in no way a stage Negro, though he's been badly treated, but a man with both smarts and warts. And underneath his sass, he knows he's vulnerable.

Not the least entertaining trait of Butler is that the General wages his war against returning Mallory and the slaves in a battle of words. It comes to a head when disdainful, pompous Confederate Major Cary (Jim Sorensen) comes to retrieve Mallory for his owner. Warned by the slave that Cary's a fortifications expert bent on spying, Butler has him brought in blindfolded. Though the Cary is clearly contemptuous of Butler, he's brought to heel, to Lt. Cary's hearty approval. Both in the play and historically, Butler's decision on the question of runaways seeking asylum rests on his legal description of those slaves to win the battle. It's a victory for the playwright as well, along with everyone involved in this informative but not factually overloaded, sharply executed play in a faithfully set and costumed production, so well guided by director Jason Cannon.

Stage Manager: Rebekah Small.

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