GLOUCESTER — Sometimes the dissonance between a play’s subject and its tone can lead to a fatal level of stylistic static.
That’s the case with Richard Strand’s “Ben Butler,’’ whose subject is dead serious but whose tone is deliberately — and jarringly — comic in a Gloucester Stage Company production directed by Joseph Discher.
Ames Adamson stars as Benjamin Franklin Butler, a major general in the Union Army during the Civil War who later served as governor of Massachusetts. (Butler lived in Gloucester, and some of his descendants were in the audience at Sunday’s performance, acknowledged from the stage before the performance by artistic director Robert Walsh.)
Butler had an eventful life and was evidently an outsize character in every sense. That clears the way for the mustachioed, long-haired Adamson to play him in a grandly operatic manner in “Ben Butler,’’ which is billed as a “historical comedy’’ inspired by real characters and events.
Adamson, who originated the role in earlier productions of “Ben Butler’’ at the New Jersey Repertory Company and off-Broadway, cuts an imposing figure in his blue military coat with gold buttons. At times, the actor’s florid portrayal of the quirky, blustering general evokes, of all people, Frank Morgan’s Wizard of Oz.
Grandiloquent and sly, the general is given to a riddling ornateness of expression that charms at first but eventually palls in his needling exchanges with his stolid, West Point-trained adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly (Doug Bowen-Flynn). It is Kelly who, one day in 1861, just hours after Virginia has seceded from the Union, brings an unusual visitor to Butler’s office in Fort Monroe, Virginia: a fugitive slave in tattered pants named Shepard Mallory (Shane Taylor, in a tightly focused performance).
The quick-witted and outspoken Mallory, who had been forced to build fortifications by the Confederate Army, is seeking sanctuary for himself and two other escaped slaves in the Union-controlled fort. That creates a dilemma for the recently promoted Butler, given that the law requires him to return the slaves to their owner, who happens to be a Confederate colonel. Butler is reminded of his legal obligation by a pompous Southern officer (played by David Debeck) who arrives at Fort Monroe under a flag of truce, determined to retrieve the human beings he sees as property.
Will Butler go along with that demand? (A running gag in the play has to do with the general’s aversion to demands of any kind.) As Butler engages in a wrestling match between duty and conscience, between legality and morality, we can discern the outlines of the principles that have guided acts of civil disobedience throughout history.
And as the verbal fencing match between general and slave reveals the common ground between them, “Ben Butler’’ does hit the mark on occasion. A crowd-pleasing exchange between Butler and the Confederate officer contains a nifty twist and is deftly executed (though Debeck struggled with a few lines on Sunday). There is also a scene that starkly, and wordlessly, drives home the evils of slavery and racism.
But the impact of such harrowing moments is undermined by the incongruously jokey vibe that prevails in much of the play. Unintentionally but unavoidably, it trivializes the human stakes involved. The play too often veers into “Hogan’s Heroes’’-like territory. And I still have no idea what to make of the Sally Field-at-the-Oscars moment when Taylor’s Mallory says triumphantly in a sing-song voice to Adamson’s Butler: “I think you liiiike me.’’
Along with occasional anachronistic touches like that, the play is also bedeviled by inconsistencies of character. For instance, Mallory — who knows how to read, in violation of anti-literacy laws designed designed to subjugate slaves even further — impresses Butler early on in the play with his “refined’’ speech, including his use of the words “convoluted’’ and “embellishment.’’ But as “Ben Butler’’ unfolds, Mallory is stumped by the words “conscripted’’ and “contraband.’’ Huh? (The concept of contraband is the hinge for a major plot point.)
Then there’s the strangely elastic attitude of Kelly, the adjutant, toward Mallory. At first, he evinces an unremitting hostility toward the escaped slave, saying he hates him and aiming a gun at him, prepared to shoot, when he believes Mallory is menacing the general. But then Kelly suddenly develops a fierce, buddy-like attachment to Mallory. It is a turnabout that is largely unexplained. Like too much of “Ben Butler,’’ it doesn’t add up.
Play by Richard Strand
Directed by Joseph Discher
Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester. Through Aug. 25. Tickets $15-$48. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com