Review: Butler (Northlight Theatre)

| April 6, 2016

Greg Vinkler and Tosin Morohunfola in Butler, Northlight Theatre         


Written by Richard Strand
North Shore Arts Center, Skokie (map)
thru Apr 17  |  tix: $25-$79  |  more info 
Half-price tickets available   


Butler: A piece of history discovered


Tosin Morohunfola and Greg Vinkler in Butler at Northlight Theatre

Northlight Theatre presents

Review by Duane Barnes

History has always fascinated me, and when hidden nuggets of history are brought to light, it seems a gift. Butler is one of those nuggets. It’s a story, written by Richard Strand, based on true events, and is not only entertaining but educational as well in that we’re also shown a key piece of African-American slave history.

Tim Monsion, Nate Burger and Greg Vinkler in Butler at Northlight TheatreThe framework of the story is simple. Three escaped slaves have found their way to Fort Monroe, Virginia shortly after Virginia has seceded from the Union. They are seeking sanctuary from the commandant of the fort, Major General Butler. Despite the ongoing conflict between the states, The Fugitive Slave Law, recently passed to reinforce the Constitution, requires that slaves be returned to their rightful owners. As the story proceeds, the General, at first reluctant, begins to seek a solution that satisfies both ethics and duty. He gradually embarks on a battle of words and wits, seeking to solve the conundrum between what is legal and what is right.

From the beginning, the audience realizes that whatever battles may be shown on stage, the weapons will be words. In the opening scene, General Butler (Greg Vinkler) is confronted with a problem by his Adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly (Nate Burger). The General was, until four months previous, a citizen lawyer, pressed into service as an officer and fort commander. Lt. Kelly, in contrast, has fought in the Mexican War and graduated from West Point. Their presence on stage reflects that beautifully as General Butler looks like a weary draftee while Lt. Kelly is fully creased, at a constant state of attention, answering Butler’s questions with a crisp “Yes Sir!” or “No Sir”. There is much wordplay between the two as Kelly has come announce that there are three escaped slaves in the fort and one of them has “demanded” to speak to the General. Bantering commences around the word “demanded” and soon two more words, “astonished” and “surprised”, are added to the mix. The General, using his lawyer skills, peppers Kelly with questions surrounding these words. Kelly, facing front, never daring eye contact, answers briskly then more haltingly as the questioning becomes more complicated. The war of words is on!

Greg Vinkler in Butler, Northlight Theatre Nate Burger in Butler, Northlight Theatre Tim Monsion in Butler, Northlight TheatreTim Monsion, Nate Burger and Greg Vinkler in Butler, Northlight Theatre Tosin Morohunfola and Nate Burger in Butler at Northlight Theatre

The next verbal battle erupts between the escaped slave who has “demanded” to see the General. This conflict circles around what the General is obliged to do to not violate the law and what the slave (Tosin Morohunfola) senses in the law that can be twisted. He has learned that the General has a law background and says that “everybody knows a good lawyer knows how to twist the law to get the results he wants.” Back and forth it goes but at one juncture, the General realizes that the slave, Shephard Mallory, can read. (Mallory’s name is not stated until well after his appearance..because no one bothered to ask!) . Mallory gets very agitated at this discovery, realizing if he is returned to his slave master, it can go badly for him because slaves who could read and write were seen as dangerous to their owners. He adamantly begs General Butler to not disclose this to anyone lest he, Mallory, pay the price.

The play proceeds in a lively manner as director, Stuart Carden, maintains a quickened pace, the three main characters constantly involved in sharp give and take. Then a fourth player appears on stage in the person of a Confederate officer, Major Cary (played by Tim Monsion in a delightfully unctuous and pompous manner) who has come to reclaim his “property”. Now the dialogue becomes thrust and parry, as he and General Butler argue the case at hand, the law involved and finally, the etiquette required in a meeting of this kind. The matter, at length, is resolved and Major Cary is sent packing, pompousness deflated. The play ends as the three, General, Lieutenant and slave, offer a triumphant toast to the satisfying results.

Rating: ★★★½

Butler continues through April 17th at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. (map), with performances Wednesdays 1pm & 7:30pm, Thursdays 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2:30pm & 8pm, Sundays 2:30pm and 7pm.  Tickets are $25-$79 (students with IDs: $15), and are available by phone (847-673-6300) or online through their website (half-price tickets available at More info at time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

 Greg Vinkler, Nate Burger and Tosin Morohunfola in Butler, Norhtlight Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Nate Burger (Lieutenant Kelly), Tim Monsion (Major Cary), Tosin Morohunfola (Shepard Mallory), Greg Vinkler (Major General Butler).

behind the scenes

Stuart Carden (director), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (set design), Rachel Laritz (costume design), Sarah Hughey (lighting design), Andre Pluess (sound design). Laura D. Glennis (stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Nate Burger and Greg Vinkler in Butler, Northlight Theatre Greg Vinkler and Tosin Morohunfola in Butler, Northlight TheatreTosin Morohunfola and Greg Vinkler in Butler, Northlight Theatre


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Category: 2016 Reviews, Duane Barnes, North Shore Center for the Arts, Northlight Theatre, Video, YouTube

Comments (1)

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  1. Nolo Contendre says:

    I look forward to seeing this play, and I appreicate this reviewer bringing it to my attention.

    The reviewer’s claim that the The Fugitive Slave Law was “recently passed to reinforce the Constitution” really bothered me.

    First, the law was passed over ten years prior to Virginia’s sucession from the union (1961).

    More important, once again, modern-day people try to blame “The Constitition” or the Founders rather than speak the horrible truth that (despite what we are constantly told in the movies and elsewhere) Lincoln specificially said, FROM THE BEGINNING AND FOR YEARS (until the war was losing popularity around 1863) that the war was NOT about freeing the slaves.

    For had it been, Lincoln (who was elected in 1860) would have lobbied for the Fugitive Slave Act to be repealed, possibly avoiding a civil war to begin with.

    Unfortunately all he cared about was teaching the south — via bloody warfare — that they could not leave the union, no matter what their reason.

    And this principle was in DIRECT OPPOSITION to what the primary founders of the country (such as Jefferson) stood for; they considered the united states to be a loose association of states with a central (federal) government of very limited powers.

    Alas, from the beginning others (such as, as those who have seen the musical can attest, Hamilton) wanted a much, much more powerful Federal government… and eventually those people got their way.

    So while I salute Lin Manuel Miranda and everyone else involved with “Hamiliton”, and think the musical is a tremendous achievement, I don’t have nearly as high opinion (despite his humble beginnings) of Hamilton the man.

    And I wish people would realize that is exactly his philosophy of a powerful central government that resulted in the Fugitive Slave Act being passed in 1850… which then, over the next ten years, caused things to get so bad (they had been getting better in the years up to 1850 as slaves escaped north and weren’t forced to go back) that Lincoln (who, as I pointed out before, had no intrinsic interest in freeing the slaves) decided to enslave northerners (through a draft) to teach the south, through massive death, just how powerful the Federal government had become.