Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter is a brave, honest, intelligent, and important play, which mitigates its being only intermittently well-written. It concerns racism by the educated white, liberal woman dean of a small Vermont college but also reverse racism by a Puerto Rican student who aggressively puts the would-be helpful dean, Sarah Daniels, on the defensive. It reveals the hypocrisy of various types of whites who claim to be concerned anti-racists – a couple of other quite insensitive deans, a Wasp senior who organizes a Students for Tolerance group from self-serving motives – but it ultimately also attacks political correctness, the no-win situation into which the fictional Belmont College, like so much of America, has steered itself.
We see here characters so concerned with doing the politically correct thing that they neglect doing the humanly right one, which is to engage in any sort of dialogue with the black student who has been getting anonymous, threatening hate letters. When Sarah, at play’s end, reaches out to him, the promise of future understanding is guardedly adumbrated.
The play has at least two triumphs. The major one is a twenty-minute monologue in which Sarah – with great candor, insight, and unsparingness – relates and analyzes the history of her racism, in a way that must buttonhole, disturb, and set to constructive thinking every unclenched spectator. If the writing were on this level throughout, the play would be a surefire winner.
The minor triumph is twofold. When Sarah tells Ross, the truly liberal fine-arts prof and her former lover, that she hates Toni Morrison, and makes out a case for why “her books suck,” and again later, when she tells the fellow deans, “So what if she won the Nobel Prize? So did Pearl S. Buck.” It takes considerable courage in this p.c. society to attack this most overrated bad writer full blast. And where a lesser playwright would have written “Pearl Buck,” that mock-conscientious “Pearl S. Buck” augurs the master.
There are, however, flaws. The protocol and procedures of a college are oversimplified and even distorted; the circumstances of Sarah’s dismissal are a bit forced; the salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar, white campus cop is idealized, though Gilman says that idealization is a form of patronization; the lone art professor is not representative of the faculty; the nonpresence of the college president is a definite minus, though I can see how Gilman wanted to be economical – one set, small cast – to facilitate inexpensive productions.
Daniel Sullivan, one of our best directors, has perhaps improved the play by exacting certain rewrites, but has not given it quite the visually indelible and psychologically incisive direction he is famous for. The students enter a dean’s office far too casually, and throw themselves and their belongings about rather too imperiously. The door of the office is left open by too many who enter, although this is to set up a crucial instance when Sarah, quite improbably, manages to hide behind this opened door. And Sullivan has cast the supporting roles less than flawlessly: Though Daniel Jenkins’s Ross isn’t bad, think what, say, Daniel Gerroll could have done with the part.
John Lee Beatty’s set is pertinent, especially what we see of the campus through a window; Jess Goldstein’s costumes, perhaps a shade too stylish for Sarah, are cogent; and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is, as always, wonderfully dramatic.
Hope Davis has hitherto, in films and plays, always been miscast as the sweet, lovely ingenue. I suspected that, as Sarah, she would at last be good. I was wrong: She is much more than that, marvelous. Her outbursts of warmth and sudden frosts, enthusiasms, and anxieties, little victories and not-so-small defeats must be carefully calibrated. She must never ring false, do too much, lose our sympathy. Miss Davis does all this flawlessly, sometimes even sublimely.
Spinning Into Butter is a play that, lapses and all, demands to be experienced, reflected upon, and, if possible, digested. To avoid it is not only to cheat oneself as a theatergoer; it is also, more gravely, to shirk an opportunity to think about serious matters involvedly.