Early in the Civil War, three escaped slaves arrive at a Union fort to seek sanctuary from Major General Butler. Despite the conflict between the states, law requires that the slaves be returned to their rightful owner. Seeking a solution that satisfies both ethics and duty, Butler embarks on a battle of words and wits, calling into question what is legal versus what is right in a captivating story based on actual events.
Production photos by Michael Brosilow.
Butler makes the most of a Civil War moment
By CHRIS JONES
In 1861, Butler, played by Greg Vinkler, found himself commanding Fort Monroe in the battleground state of Virginia. Three asylum-seeking slaves from nearby Norfolk County, which was Confederate territory, made their way to Fort Monroe, presenting Butler with an ethical dilemma. Having been a lawyer on civilian street, and a Union officer for about 30 seconds, he took seriously the legal obligation to return property to its rightful owner, as required by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But then, of course, that meant either A), likely returning a man to his death or B), assuming that man would be allowed to live, returning a man who would then be forced to try to kill Union soldiers. Neither was ethically satisfying to Butler.
Only one of the slaves who initially came to Fort Monroe, Mallory, played by Tosin Morohunfola, is actually in Strand’s play, likely because Strand conceived the drama as a debate between Mallory, a smart and literate man who knew how to work on the margins, and Butler, no fool either. He adds in one Lt. Kelly (the very amusing Nate Burger) as the third military wheel who brings these two very different men together, and he also includes Maj. John Baytop Cary of the 115th (Tim Monsion), the Confederate officer who shows up at Fort Monroe under the flag of truce to get his slaves back.
We all know how the war ended. So at no point in Butler are you thinking that Mallory is headed back South. So the appeal of this Civil War play, which is quite smartly drawn, mostly comes from feeling superior to Cary (Monsion happily plays into this) while siding with Butler and Mallory and enjoying their complicated verbal dance.
Butler stirs up ugliness of America in Civil War comedy
By NAIMA DAWSON
CRITICS’ PICK Through an intricate dance of witty dialogue, Northlight Theater’s production Butler by Richard Strand explores one moment in history which undoubtedly can be considered the prelude to not just the Emancipation Proclamation, but it also explains how Black men both free and escaped slaves were allowed to join as soldiers of the Union during the Civil war.
What happens is a masterfully woven comedy about slavery and a General’s radical decision that would presumably later influence President Abraham Lincoln’s freeing of all slaves.
If one is looking for a tear-jerking, fist-clenching melodrama, Butler will greatly disappoint. It’s a comedy that takes us through the grand art of wordplay and humor. Under the direction of Stuart Carden, Butler stirs up all the ugliness of America into a sensible comedy about a poignant time in history.
Even though this is a subject we wouldn’t typically find ourselves laughing about, the dialogue is ingenious and hilarious. Through a slow build, we understand the relationship that develops between fugitive slave, Shepard Mallory, and General Butler. It’s within their banter that General Butler takes great interest in the keen and often arrogant intelligence found in Shepard, who shouldn’t have all this high intellect and wit, as he’s a slave.
Review: Butler/Northlight Theatre
By KELLY KLEIMAN
Butler is about as likely as a unicorn: a comedy about slavery and the Civil War. But a very smart script by Richard Strand, impeccable direction by Stuart Carden and especially the comic chops of the four-man company make both moving and hilarious this fictional re-telling of a real incident which helped turn the tide against the Fugitive Slave Act. Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler (the outstanding — no, astonishing! — Greg Vinkler) has just taken command of Fort Monroe, a Union outpost in Virginia, when escaped slave Shepard Mallory (Tosin Morohunfola, whom I’ve somehow never seen before but can’t wait to see again) shows up demanding sanctuary. Their battle of wits, interspersed with commentary by Nate Burger as the General’s adjutant and high Confederate swanning by Tim Monsion as the officer sent to retrieve Mallory, is funny and profound and touching all at the same time. The most intense pleasure of the evening arises from Strand’s observation that these two apparent opposites — the black slave and the white general — are actually exactly alike.
Butler: The conversation that changed the Civil War
CHICAGO TRIBUNE MEDIA
By CATEY SULLIVAN
When you consider the source, the words are doubly shocking: “I have no purpose to interfere with the institution of slavery. I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” That’s President Abraham Lincoln talking in March, 1861, tacitly endorsing the concept of human beings as property.
With Richard Strand’s drama Butler, Northlight Theatre delves a little-known slice of history that unfolds about two months after Lincoln made the above stance on slavery. The story of a field slave named Shepard Mallory (Tosin Morohunfola) and Union General Benjamin Butler (Greg Vinkler) changed the way the United States viewed slavery, and re-defined the issues at the heart of the Civil War.
“What happens when the law is at odds with what’s morally right? That’s what this play addresses so powerfully,” says Morohunfola. Butler opens in May, 1861, shortly after Mallory escaped his plantation. Along with two others, he risked a perilous water crossing to seek refuge at Monroe Fort, under the command of General Butler. The conversation that ensued between the two men changed history.
“The meeting between Butler and Mallory had huge repercussions as far as what the war was fought over, how long it lasted and how it ended,” Director Stuart Carden said. “What Butler does so well is show how the scope of history can be shaped by two guys, face-to-face, in a room.”
The Best Dramas in March
By CATEY SULLIVAN
BUTLER 3/11–4/17 Greg Vinkler plays Major General Butler in this Civil War dramedy about three escaped slaves seeking refuge at a Union fort. Read more>
17 Chicago theatre shows to see in March
By CATEY SULLIVAN
BUTLER: Stuart Carden directs the Chicago premiere of Richard Strand’s Civil War comedy (too soon?). The cast includes Nate Burger, Tim Monsion, Tosin Morohunfola and Greg Vinkler. Read more>
Nate returns to Northlight where he previously appeared as Lt. Kelly in Butler. Select Chicago and regional credits include Love’s Labor’s Lost, The Heir Apparent, SS! A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Chicago Shakespeare); The Liar (Writers); Wasteland, ‘Master Harold’…And The Boys (Timeline); A Christmas Carol (Goodman); The Man Who Was Thursday (New Leaf Theatre); Red (Forward Theater Co); Shakespeare In Love, Roe (Asolo Rep). He is a core company actor with American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI, where some favorite roles over 8 seasons include 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark, Plume, Mercutio, Cassio, Orpheus, Troilus, and Claudio, amongst many others. Thanks to Mom, Dad, Erin, Nora, Alicia Pursley, Kara Ussery, and Laura, always. He is a proud graduate of Loyola University Chicago.
Tim is happy to be back to Chicago and Northlight where he appeared in Butler this spring. Chicago credits include: Goodman, Court, Apple Tree, Next, Bailiwick. Also Peninsula Players in Wisconsin for many years. New York: Minetta Lane (Marvin’s Room), Playwrights Horizons. Regional: Kennedy Center, Hasty Pudding, Dallas Theater Center, Cincinnati Playhouse, Arena Stage, Mark Taper Forum. Film: Men Of Honor, Blink, Cotton, The Second Greatest Story Ever Told TV: Desperate Housewives, Modern Family, Numb3rs, King of Queens, Frasier, Mad About You, 7th Heaven, Monk, Cybill, Law and Order. Tim lives in LA and recently wrote, directed and acted in the film The Tale of Fenton Black (with Shannon Cochran and Greg Vinkler), appearing in festivals soon.
Tosin is the founder of the Multicultural Theatre Initiative, where he served as Artistic Director for two years and produced four of his own original plays. His stage appearances include Northlight’s Bulter, Goodman, New Victory (Off-Broadway), Lookingglass, Court, Unicorn, Creede Repertory, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and Coterie, where he was Resident Artist for two years. In 2014, Tosin was honored with Best Supporting Actor from the Black Theatre Alliance for his role in The Gospel of Lovingkindness at Victory Gardens. In 2015, he wrote and directed his own original film On Sight. Other film: Destination Planet Negro, If Night Comes and Falling Apples. TV: Chicago Med (recurring role), Empire, Chicago Fire and APB. Tosin is a member of “Those People” Comedy and represented by Stewart Talent Chicago. tosinmorohunfola.com onsightfilm.com
Major General Butler
Greg is very happy to return to Northlight, having previously performed in 10 productions between 1980 and 1994. In the Chicago area he has also appeared at Goodman, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare (35 productions), Victory Gardens, Marriott Lincolnshire, Writers, Apple Tree, Shubert and Court. He is the recipient of three Joseph Jefferson Awards, two Artisan Awards and an After Dark Award. Greg directed the recent Jeff nominated The Rose Tattoo for Shattered Globe. Regionally he has been seen at Milwaukee Repertory, Pittsburgh Public, Paper Mill, Fulton, BoarsHead and Milwaukee Chamber. He appeared on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning revival of West Side Story and internationally at the Royal Shakespeare Company, London’s Barbican, Vienna’s English Theatre and Singapore Repertory. Greg serves as Artistic Director of Peninsula Players in WI.
Strand wrote his first play in 1976, a one act entitled Harry and Sylvia. That play won two national awards, was published by Hunter Press and a full-length version of that same play, entitled Clown, premiered at Victory Gardens in Chicago. He has had premieres at GeVa in Rochester, Rivendell and Steppenwolf in Chicago, Cricket in Minneapolis, The Z Collective in San Francisco and a number of other venues. The Bug and The Death of Zukasky, premiered at The Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Ten Percent of Molly Snyder, My Simple City and The Second-Story Man were written in Iowa City, where Mr. Strand was a member of the University of Iowa Playwright’s Workshop. More recently, his plays Butler and The Realization of Emily Linder premiered at New Jersey Repertory. Mr. Strand currently lives in California with his wife, Mary Lynn. He is the chairman of the theater department, technical director and resident set designer at Mt. San Antonio College where he teaches History of Theater and Playwriting.
Chicago: The Old Man and The Old Moon, Yellow Moon, Hesperia, Travels with my Aunt (Writers); The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Frederick (Chicago Children’s Theatre); The Merchant on Venice by Shishir Kurup, Golden Child, Back of the Throat, 10 Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith (Silk Road Rising). Regional: The Old Man and The Old Moon (Williamstown Theatre Festival, New Victory – NYC, ArtsEmerson – Boston); Tribes (Philadelphia Theatre Company & City Theatre);Oblivion, Blackbird, Mary’s Wedding, The Moonlight Room (City Theatre); Circle Mirror Transformation, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), Crime and Punishment, The Lieutenant of Inishmore (The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis); The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The False Servant, Stones in his Pockets (PICT). Stuart served five seasons as associate artistic director at Writers from 2009-14 and two seasons at City Theatre from 2007-2009.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec
Jeffrey is a Chicago-based scenic designer. Local credits include: Butler, Funnyman, The Commons of Pensacola and Tom Jones at Northlight Theatre; The Little Mermaid, A Christmas Story and Les Miserables (2015 Jeff Award Recipient) at Paramount Theatre; Crazy For You, Deathtrap (2016 Jeff Award Recipient) and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Drury Lane Oakbrook; Man of La Mancha at The Marriott Theatre; Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Double Trouble, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Sweeney Todd and Sondheim on Sondheim at Porchlight Music Theatre; Good Boys and True, Dividing the Estate (Jeff Award Nomination), The Old Friends, A Loss of Roses (Jeff Award Nomination) and The Assembled Parties at Raven Theatre; Watch on the Rhine (Jeff Award Nomination) and The Seagull at The Artistic Home. Regional credits include: American Players Theatre, Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, Heritage Theatre Festival and the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Jeffrey received his MFA from the University of Virginia.
Rachel is honored to be joining Northlight for the 23rd time after last season’s By the Water and Relativity. Her designs have previously been seen Off Broadway at Pearl Theatre and regionally at Chicago Shakespeare, Steppenwolf First Look, Writers, Court, Milwaukee Rep, Great Lakes Theatre, Idaho Shakespeare, American Players, Florentine Opera, Drury Lane, Arizona Theatre Company, Resident Ensemble Players, Kansas City Rep, Utah Shakespeare, Actors Theatre Louisville, Illinois Shakespeare, Next Act, Peninsula Players, Remy Bumppo, Timeline, Chamber, Renaissance Theaterworks, Skylight Music Theatre, Arkansas Shakespeare, Children’s Theatre of Madison and University of Michigan. Other professional credits include NBC’S Law & Order, Chicago Opera Theatre, and Garsington Opera. Rachel is a recipient of a 2011 Emerging Artist Award from the University of Michigan and a 2009 Joseph Jefferson Award for Voysey Inheritance. www.rachellaritz.com
Sarah is pleased to be working on her eighth design with Northlight after Miss Bennet, The City of Conversation, Discord, Butler, The Commons of Pensacola, Tom Jones and Black Pearl Sings!. Recent Chicago credits include Vietgone, The Scene, Doubt: A Parable, The Diary of Anne Frank (Writers); Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth (Lookingglass); Straight White Men (Steppenwolf); Moby Dick (Blair Thomas & Co.); Cocked, The Who and the What, Samsara (Victory Gardens). Other recent credits include Crossing Mnisose and Sense and Sensibility (Portland Center Stage); The Cake (Asolo Rep); and As You Like It (Guthrie Theater). Ms. Hughey has received a Jeff Award (Scorched, Silk Road Rising), and the Maggio Emerging Designer Award. She holds an MFA from Northwestern University.
Andre has designed the Broadway productions of Metamorphoses, I Am My Own Wife and 33 Variations (Drama Desk Award nomination) as well as the world premiere of The Clean House at Yale Repertory and Lincoln Center. Based in Chicago, his work has appeared on most of the city’s stages including Northlight (Shining Lives with Amanda Dehnert), Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court and Lookingglass, where he is an associate artist. He has composed music and designed sound for theaters around the U.S., most frequently at the Oregon and California Shakespeare Festivals, Berkeley Repertory, Arena Stage, American Conservatory Theater, Seattle Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse and Center Theater Group. Choral works include: Winesburg, Ohio,Eastland, Whitman and Undone (with Ben Sussman) and Paris By Night (with Amy Warren).
Laura D. Glenn
Production Stage Manager
Over the past fourteen years with Northlight, production stage management credits include Outside Mullingar, The Mousetrap, Chapatti, The Whipping Man, The Odd Couple, Ten Chimneys, Season’s Greetings, Sense & Sensibility, A Life, Souvenir, Better Late (also at the Galway Arts Festival), Retreat from Moscow, Permanent Collection, Cat Feet, Blue/Orange, Tuesdays with Morrie, Sky Girls, Rounding Third and A Skull in Connemara. Other credits include stage management for Domesticated, Grand Concourse, The Qualms, Lord of the Flies, Slowgirl, Head of Passes, Three Sisters,Middletown, To Kill a Mockingbird, a parallelogram, Superior Donuts, Betrayal, Love Song, I Never Sang for my Father, The Violet Hour, Purple Heart, The Drawer Boy, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and many others at Steppenwolf over the past twenty-five years. International credits include Orange Flower Water and Purple Heart (Steppenwolf) at the Galway Arts Festival in Galway, Ireland; The Man Who Came to Dinner – BITE festival at the Barbican Center in London; and the regional and Broadway productions of Buried Child. Laura has been a proud member of Actors Equity Association for almost twenty-six years.