Positive Spin

Spinning Into Butter is an Important Play, one of those that are lauded practically from their first curtain call for being brave and smart and honest in their depiction of difficult subjects. Rebecca Gilman's work probes hidden racism and political correctness, and is based on an incident that occurred at the predominantly white college Gilman herself attended. The play's subject matter, its sterling reputation, and its superb Actors Theatre production help mitigate the script's occasionally shallow writing.

The story is set at Belmont, a Vermont liberal arts college, where dean Sarah Matthews has just offered a $12,000 "minority" scholarship to a Hispanic student who doesn't want to be categorized by his ethnicity. When an African-American student is threatened with racist notes, Sarah's colleagues fall all over themselves assembling public forums and preaching platitudes, while she calls the police. The threats continue, and Sarah's liberal façade begins to crumble. She finally reveals that she is a racist, that she moved to Vermont to escape black people and has since failed at resisting her own intolerance.

The title is a reference to Helen Bannerman's much-despised kiddy tale Little Black Sambo, in which a group of tigers make off with a little black boy's new suit of clothes. The tigers bicker about which of them looks best in the boy's clothes, and begin chasing one another "so fast that they spun themselves into butter," which Little Black Sambo spreads on his pancakes and eats.

When it debuted, Spinning Into Butter was repeatedly compared by critics to David Mamet's Oleana, a play about sexism set in the academic world. In his play, Mamet pitted feminism against political correctness, and raised provocative questions about the value of "being good." Gilman's play argues that political correctness inhibits dialogue rather than promoting healing among races, and provides characters worthy of such a debate.

The script would benefit from a final rewrite, however; the dialogue is occasionally flabby, the ending a tad sentimental. There's a good deal of hand-wringing but not a lot of insight into the human condition; no real revelation about how or why good people carry bad seeds. And I was never entirely convinced that the head of security at any university would have such a casual relationship with the dean and other officers, as did Mark DeMichele's Mr. Meyers.

If the play's undercurrents don't run deep, its surface still occasionally gleams with keen technique. We never see the African-American student, a dramatic trick that strengthens Gilman's position that minorities are often invisible. And the 15-minute monologue by Sarah in which she declares her own racism is both disturbing and exhilarating, a definitive moment that elevates the play well into its second act.

There's nothing before or after this remarkable scene to match it, a fact that would have been more troublesome with a lesser cast. Judy Rollings reminds us, with her portrayal of Dean Kenney, of her talent for bringing warmth and humor to the most disagreeable characters. Benjamin Stewart is delightful as a persnickety dean, and Gordon Waggoner, as the scholarship student, captures perfectly the hunted qualities of a young person demanding his own identity. As ever, Molly Schaffer is magnificent. As Sarah, she strikes just the right balance of angst and wry humor and remains elegant throughout, no matter what poisonous sentiment she may be expressing.

As for Matthew Wiener's staging, it's the patented article -- straightforward and efficient, with an understanding of the play's ironic, sometimes dour humor. Unfortunately, Jeff Thomson's scenic design is too crisp to pass for Belmont's tweedy old rooms, and his vast window view of the campus is too clearly a mammoth Kodak print.

The production overcomes such design flaws and a slightly baggy script, and makes a resounding point: that good people want to overcome their weaknesses. Sarah wants to triumph over her own racism, not wind up spinning herself into butter like a lot of fictional cats.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela