Butler Review: Northlight's Butler a name you should know

Butler Review: Northlight's Butler a name you should know
Monsion, Vinkler (front), Burger (rear). Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Butler now running at Northlight Theatre, not to be confused with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” –a film focusing on African American history that tells the story through a mostly black cast–has its own amazing true, yet not widely known, story to tell.

Benjamin Franklin Butler, a name you may not know but should is the man who is credited with coming up with the legalese for freeing fugitive slaves during the Civil War.

It seems back in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, according to the law of the land, runaway slaves had to be returned to their owners even if they were in Union non-slave states.

The story opens with Butler, who had just been named a Major General at Fort Monroe in Virginia, getting things in order at his office when his adjunct Lieutenant Kelly (masterfully portrayed by Nate Burger) informs him that an escaped slave is seeking sanctuary at the fort and is demanding to speak with him.

“Demanding” Butler counters his Lieutenant which sets the stage for the humorous give and take between the four person cast throughout the one hour and 50 minute play.

Some may question, a humorous show about slavery and the Civil War? But it works.

Butler, a man of many contradictions–sometimes called a beast but oftentimes a man with a heart is portrayed to perfection by Greg Vinkler–a longtime Chicago favorite who returns to Northlight where he previously performed in 10 productions between 1980 and 1994.

Due to the wonderfully executed story by playwright Richard Strand, who has a long and respected history with the Chicago theatre community and director Stuart Carden, the tale unfolds seamlessly as Butler struggles to find a solution that satisfies both ethics and duty.


(L. to R.) Tosin Morohunfola as Shepard Mallory and Greg Vinkler as Benjamin Franklin Butler in Northlight Theatre’s Butler. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Although the story centers around three escaped slaves that arrived at the Union fort to seek sanctuary from Major General Butler, the only slave that appears on stage is Shepard Mallory (magnificently captured by Tosin Morohunfola).

The fact that Mallory and the major general are more alike than not makes for some very entertaining moments. Mallory holds his own with Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler–walking the thin line between respect and disdain–while Butler, who in one of many wit-driven lines says to Mallory, “just call me Ben” and offers him a glass of sherry.

The fourth cast member, Major Cary–the pompous, bumbling Confederate soldier (on-spot performance by Tim Monsion) rounds out the cast.

The story moves forward with razor-sharp dialogue as a battle of wits unfolds with Butler trying to find a legal way to do of what feels right (free the slaves) versus what the law says (send them back to their owners).

His solution is genius.

When: Now through April 17

Where: North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Tickets: $25-$79 at 847-673-6300 or online

Rating: ★★★

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