At Gloucester Stage, a play celebrating a local who changed the argument about slaves
General Benjamin Franklin Butler merited only a mention in Abraham Lincoln’s biography, but the Gloucester resident, lawyer, and one-time Massachusetts governor made a decision in 1861 that marked the beginning of the end of slavery.
“I was struck by a footnote that described an episode at Fort Monroe, Virginia, that didn’t really make sense,” says playwright Richard Strand. “A brief confrontation between an enslaved man and General Butler, a New Englander who was not sympathetic to abolition. And yet . . .”
Strand turned the meeting between Butler and Shepard Mallory — one of three enslaved men who fled to Fort Monroe seeking sanctuary — into “Ben Butler,” which Gloucester Stage Company is presenting Aug. 2-25.
“The play captures a rich moment in history,” says director Joe Discher, “but it does it through a battle of words and wits that is often surprisingly funny considering how high the stakes are.”
The action is set in General Butler’s office where Mallory has come to argue why he and his companions should not be sent back to the Confederates, despite the Fugitive Slave Act, which required their return.
Butler, says Discher, “is a bull in a china shop. He’s arrogant and overconfident, while Mallory is calculating and manipulative.”
As the play unfolds, the two men discover they have more in common than they thought. When Mallory tries to explain that the Civil War is happening because “some men saw things differently than some other men,” it provides an opening for Butler to think differently about Mallory and his situation. What Butler ultimately decided would shift the argument about “freeing” slaves, turning the notion of property on its head.
“What is striking,” says Discher, “is that when Mallory challenges Butler’s thinking, Butler has the capacity to listen.”
Discher is returning to “Ben Butler” after directing the world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company and several subsequent productions. He has cast actors who have played the roles before — Ames Adamson as Butler and Shane Taylor as Mallory — while Doug Bowen-Flynn and David Debeck are new to the roles.
“The opportunity to direct a play or perform a role more than once allows you to delve more deeply into the complexities of these characters and be specific about their actions,” Discher says. “At the same time, the two new actors provide a fresh outlook and asked questions we hadn’t thought of before.”
Although the play focuses on a serious subject, Discher says it’s fun to watch these two big personalities clash and occasionally connect with each other.
Born in New Hampshire and raised in Lowell, Butler moved to the Bay View area of Gloucester, now known as the Ames Estate. To place the man in context, UMass Lowell professor Robert Forrant, a Butler historian, will join some of Butler’s Bay View descendants along with actors from the GSC production for a conversation at the Cape Ann Museum, Saturday at 2 p.m.
Apollinaire wins grant for artists
More than 60 independent artists and local arts companies representing theater, opera, dance, and music attended information sessions the past week to learn about Chelsea-based Apollinaire Theatre Company’s new Resident Artist Program.
Apollinaire received $45,000 from the Boston Foundation’s Open Door Grants program that covers the cost of rent in Apollinaire’s Black Box Theatre in the Chelsea Theatre Works building, along with rehearsal space, shop space to build sets, and a project stipend.
“We initially envisioned supporting 12 one-off projects, one each month,” says Danielle Fauteux Jacques, artistic director at Apollinaire. “But based on the conversations at the meeting, we hope to be more flexible. Some people have productions they have mounted elsewhere they’d like to bring here for a weekend or two of performances; others would like a week or two to develop a piece.”
Individuals and companies will now submit proposals on their needs, and Fauteux Jacques and a group of panelists representing the community will review and select the projects.
A trip back to ‘Paragon Park’
“Paragon Park: The Musical” returns to The Company Theatre in Norwell July 26-Aug. 18 (Tickets $46, 781-871-2787, www.companytheatre.com). The musical, co-written by Company Theatre cofounder and artistic director Zoe Bradford, actor and playwright Michael Hammond, and composer Adam Brooks, celebrates the people and passions behind the Nantasket Beach landmark across four decades.
It was originally staged in 2012, but the new production adds a musical number to the second act and tightens the script while honoring the extensive historical research the creative team did to bring to life the famed amusement park and its connection to the colorful characters of the time, including Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, Richard Cardinal Cushing, Judy Garland, and the Kennedys.
A portion of the ticket price will support the restoration of the Paragon Park Carousel.
Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Aug. 2-25. Tickets $15-$48, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com.