Have you ever wished you were a fly on the wall for a historic event? Portland Stage is offering up a real treat with its 45th season opener, “Ben Butler,” about a Civil War general and the slave who risked everything to secure his help. History and humor mingle in Richard Strand’s reimagined account, delivering an insightful and entertaining view of a turning point in history.

It’s May 1861. Union officer Gen. Major Benjamin Franklin Butler (Ron Orbach) has been sent to take command of Fort Monroe in Virginia, the latest state to secede from the Union. His appointment to the fort is a demotion for defying orders and occupying Baltimore, Maryland.

When an escaped slave named Shepard Mallory (Cornelius Davidson) shows up at Fort Monroe demanding asylum for him and two other fugitive slaves, Gen. Butler is faced with a moral dilemma. Will he uphold the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 or use his background as a lawyer to “twist” the law and alter the course of history?

Portland Stage has assembled a dynamic four-member cast. As the title character, stage and screen actor Orbach is the linchpin for both the humor and drama of the play, providing setups for the cast to springboard from.

Davidson, who teaches literacy through drama in New York City, brings a sardonic fire and intelligence to his character. Unlike most slaves, Shepard could read.

It’s a delight to watch Orbach and Davidson verbally spar as their characters butt heads. Although they are from very different worlds, the characters share similar personality traits. Both are brash, stubborn men who buck societal norms, despite their insecurities.

Michael Dix Thomas brings an engaging droll wit to the production as West Point graduate Lieut. Kelly. His interaction with Orbach’s Gen. Butler is priceless, delivering looks that speak volumes.

Corey Gagne rounds out the cast as Major Cary, the Confederate officer tasked with retrieving the fugitive slaves. He’s the catalyst for additional humor, highlighting the idiocy of inflexible thinking.

The theme for Portland Stage’s 45th season is boundaries, and “Ben Butler” is loaded with both physical and metaphorical ones. There are the boundaries that divide the North and the South, the boundaries set forth by the law, and the boundaries the characters must cross to better understand each other. There’s also the knowledge gap that can lead to an unfounded hatred of others.

“Ben Butler” is history at its most entertaining. No one knows what was actually said in Gen. Butler’s office or what exactly led him to make his momentous decision. Strand uses his imagination to fill in the blanks.

Portland Stage capitalizes on the importance of both history and good storytelling, delivering a production that makes the audience think, laugh and recall with a smile the power of words as seemingly mundane as “demand” and “contraband.”

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. Contact her at:

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Twitter: @ahboyle

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