Review by Steve Lively
The 2018-2019 season ends this month at First Presbyterian Theater with Ben Butler, a play that mixes historical figures from the dawn of The Civil War with vital contemporary social issues and themes such as racial inequality and duty. Set at Fort Monroe in Virginia in 1861, General Ben Butler is suddenly interrupted by his lieutenant informing him that three escaped slaves have arrived and are essentially looking for ‘sanctuary’ from being returned to enslavement. Director John O’Connell was “struck” by the word ‘sanctuary’ in this this character-driven play and cast a quartet of exceptional performers to round out First Prez’s fiftieth year of local theater in Fort Wayne.
Thom Hofrichter, the theater’s Managing Artistic Director for the past twenty-two years, stars as the title character, a man who had been assigned this post for only a short time when the action of this play begins. Among the highlights of a lengthy career in the military, Butler is known for authoring a legal loophole that served as a step toward the emancipation of slaves. Hofrichter excels in this authoritative role and exhibits a clear level of respect of escaped slaves that is not often associated with men from this era whose obligations to their superior prevented them from being empathetic. Through his clear knowledge of Butler’s role in the Civil War and American politics thereafter, Hofrichter applies his boisterous presence and sharp wit over the course of this two-hour performance.
Butler’s subordinate, Lieutenant Kelly, is played by Kevin Torwelle, who has appeared in multiple performances this season at FPT. Torwelle again expresses his active range of emotions as a young officer whose routine life is jarred by the sudden arrival of the three slaves. Torwelle and Hofrichter execute the swelling and intoxicating momentum they had when they co-starred in last season’s RED as the situation intensifies. Throughout the opening scene together, these two performers solidify their characters’ perspectives and balance the serious nature of the established plot with moments of humor that jab at the conflicts between military order and morality.
Starring as one of the fugitive slaves who have arrived at Fort Monroe is Tony McCarrol as Shepard Mallory, the second of the two real historical figures used as inspiration for this play.
Though he hasn’t graced the FPT stage since 1999, McCarrol, though initially appearing in handcuffs, quickly establishes Mallory through a convincing nervousness and eventual blunt nature. As the tension rises in the conversation between Mallory and Butler, audiences can easily draw parallels between the anxious moments of this historical moment of the Civil War and the current-day situation at the US Southern border. With that parallel in mind, viewers are led to examine the challenges that our professional obligations at times conflict with what is commonly accepted as morally righteous choices.
Robert Phillips returns to the FPT stage as Major John B. Carey, a man who arrives under a truce flag and plans to return the trio of fugitive slaves back to their owner. Phillips and Hofrichter successfully engineer these symbolic roles as powerful men from opposing sides of the stewing war through their cutting exchange that serve as a prelude to the play’s culminating scene.
Throughout this tight, accelerated script, audiences will not have difficulty understanding the morality involved in this play and will likely leave with a fresh reminder that, in their hearts, we often know what is right. Ben Butler serves as an entertaining reminder that we sometimes allow antiquated notions and traditions to interfere with our decisions. This performance not only mixes laughs with stained portions of our country’s history, but it also reminds us that we must take advantage of every moment when the opportunity to improve social equality and moral goodness presents itself.