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Life lessons
NewGateís probing Spinning Into Butter
Spinning Into Butter
By Rebecca Gilman. Directed by Brien Lang. With Clare Blackmer, Marc Berry, James Robinson, Jim Brown, Emma Palzere-Rae, Ron Robinson, and Seth Allen. At NewGate Theatre through May 2.

Rebecca Gilmanís Spinning Into Butter is intended to be good for us. OK, everybody. All together, letís roll our eyes. Fine. Now that thatís out of the way, let me reveal a little surprise: although the production by NewGate Theatre is instructive, itís also quite good drama.

The author of the chilling The Glory of Living, about a serial killer, which was at Brown last year, here treats the subject of racism, a matter on which we all feel we have a comfortable handle and a guilt-free correct perspective. To top that preaching-to-the-choir liability, the playwright sets this in a community of academics, mostly droning deans, no less.

However, Gilman succeeds by plumbing to the depths of the problem, after entertaining us for a while and helping us to think about our superficial attitudes about racial friction. For their part, NewGate succeeds the old-fashioned way, through fine acting and the attentive direction of Brien Lang.

We are in the office of Dean Sarah Daniels (Clare Blackmer) at the fictional Belmont College in Vermont. A crisis soon arises when an African-American student begins getting ugly letters, apparently from someone on campus. Since Sarah had worked previously at a virtually all-black college, she has become the de facto liaison to minority students. The problem lands in her lap.

We never see the beleaguered victim, but we do meet Patrick Chibas (Marc Berry), a representative minority student. (Oops ó "student of color," he insists, when he isnít insisting on "Nuyorican" ó when he hasnít lost track, that is, and prefers "Puerto Rican.") There also is a white student, Greg Sullivan (Seth Allen), who gets involved by organizing a Students for Tolerance group ó because heís applying to law school and his extra-curriculars look thin. (A measure of the play and the production is that Allen makes the characterís final little right-minded speech quite moving.)

Two more deans of indeterminate designation come into the picture. Sarahís administrative superior, Catherine Kenney, is someone arrogant enough to shout "How can you be so stupid?" at Sarah after she reports the incident to the police instead of keeping it in-house. She is played exquisitely by Emma Palzere-Rae, who softens her into someone who has become not hard-hearted so much as pragmatic and a bureaucratic survivor. As Dean Burton Strauss, Jim Brown has great fun waxing pompous; there was no living with the self-impressed aristocratic after his Times op-ed piece was published, and students canít get a word in edgewise when heís at their race-awareness meeting.

There isnít an actor here who doesnít have a scene or two of seemingly effortless bullís-eye-hitting. That includes Ron Robinsonís wise, white-haired security guard, a character who introduces to this ivory tower some badly needed common sense. Of course, it is Blackmer who holds this all together by creating such a compelling and skeptical Sarah, through whose alert reactions we learn to question everything and everyone. What fun, watching a play, to be able to read a character like a book.

Sarahís sounding board, erstwhile lover, and her only friend on campus is art professor Ross Collins (James Robinson). Early on he expresses his fascination with and admiration for a fastidious poor old man on a subway who was intent on memorizing a religious text. Playwright Gilman gets a twofer here, introducing an ironic moral voyeurism and later having Sarah define herself by calling Ross on his objectifying the old man with such idealistic distancing.

For a play set in such an airy-fairy realm, Spinning Into Butter does get around to whomping us upside the head not once but twice. Through two of the characters, we are reminded that who we see is not always who we are getting, not completely. This isnít done melodramatically, with arbitrary revelations that only the playwright has been privy to. No, each surprise emerges as though we are being confided in by someone we thought we knew well enough but learn we didnít really know at all. Yes, for those taking notes for the quiz, thatís like having it finally sink in that a person we had assigned to some category, racial or not, is not representative at all, but is foremost an individual.

So canít we all just get along? Well, no, Rodney ó some of us just donít want to. What we can do is pay attention to people. To racists, to limousine liberals, to playwrights, to actors. And while weíre looking at them, we just might learn something about ourselves.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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