Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter continually pushes against that kind of surface tension, as unrest on a small college campus offers a metaphor for how America strives to be a color-blind society and falls short of that goal. It's a provocative play for the Alliance Theatre Main Stage, all but guaranteed to foment argument. Yet it's also a sensible, well-drawn work that means to do more than merely light a fuse.
Two incidents transform Vermont's idyllic Bellmont College into a hotbed of racial discord. In the first scene, Dean of Students Sarah Daniels (Christina Rouner) offers young Patrick Chabis (Rey Lucas) a $12,000 minority scholarship. The twist is that, to facilitate the paperwork, she asks him to be more "traditional" in identifying his ethnicity, which he describes as "Nuyorican."
The other episode proves less subtle, as one of the school's few African-American freshmen reports receiving racist, threatening notes. Immediately, the faculty and student body leap into action, holding school meetings and organizing groups with names like "Students for Tolerance" to emphasize Bellmont's lack of bigotry. But Gilman expertly shows how these actions only add fuel to the fire and cause events that swiftly snowball out of control.
Butter bears comparison to David Mamet's similarly inflammatory Oleanna, which also has an academic setting. (In Mamet's film version, like the Alliance production, the "acts" begin with a chorus singing an ivy-covered alma mater hymn.) Each play is likely bound to polarize its audience based on background, with Butter hinging on ethnicity, Oleanna on gender. In Butter, Gilman at least shows a sense of humor, frequently offering pointed academic satire despite the gravity of her subject. Rouner reveals a flair for comedy, at one point asking, "You want me to solve racism with a bulleted list?"
Gilman also offers more characters and greater depth of opinion than Mamet's play. Both plays have academic authority figures with no conscious wish to offend and students from so-called "minority" groups who feel marginalized. Gilman suggests that the rules of contemporary race relations shift so quickly that neither side can keep up. It becomes a climate where, Gilman suggests, to call Toni Morrison a bad writer is tantamount to expressing admiration for David Duke.
The exemplar of this ambiguity is Sarah, who takes enormous pains not to offend. In her increasingly tense meetings with Patrick, Rouner forms her sentences with a visible level of concentration, as if she's stepping through a minefield. "I'm sorry" is Sarah's constant refrain, and her solicitousness makes all the more startling her speech in the second act. She explains, with shocking candor, how experiences at an all-black college unlocked some deep-seated prejudices within her, which she refuses to rationalize or explain away.
Rouner is merely the most prominent actor in a cast that proves consistently fine at playing "context," taking their lines and giving them interesting, unexpected emotional implications. It helps that Gilman's characters are consistently surprising, from the tweedy, bullying "Old World" professor (Burton Strauss) to the salt-of-the-earth campus security guard (Craig Bockhorn) to the frat boy (Joe Knezevich) who knows how good founding "Students for Tolerance" will look on a law school application.
David de Vries plays art professor Ross Collins, who breaks off a love affair with Sarah in his first scene. The element of spurned romance initially seems the stuff of situation comedy (albeit a clever one), with Ross as simply a callow cad. Gilman and de Vries make the role into a surprisingly sensitive confidant and foil for Sarah's soul-searching.
Perhaps Gilman's most conspicuous touch is that no African-American characters appear onstage. Spinning Into Butter can be accused of looking past their concerns and skirting the overtly violent consequences of racism. But her larger point is that the professors scarcely perceive the minority students for who they are, and the play is focused less on being "inclusive" than on studying white guilt, anxiety and the kind of quiet stereotyping that can be dangerously prevalent and insidious.
Spinning Into Butter plays through April 29 at the Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 2:30 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sun. $16-$45. 404-733-5000.
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