Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Spinning into Butter"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Eric Engel

Sarah Daniels … Denise Cormier
Patrick Chibas … Jared Swanson
Ross Collins … Marc Carver
Dean Catherine Kenny … Nancy E. Carroll
Dean Burton Strauss … Neil A. Casey
Mr. Meyers … Ray Jenness
Greg Sullivan … Risher Reddick

Rebecca Gilman’s SPINNING INTO BUTTER, which recently closed at the Gloucester Stage, dwells on a racial incident at a small Vermont college that spins out of control when the (white) faculty attempts to do the politically right thing while simultaneously trying to keep the police and the press from turning it into yet another media circus; by the time the anonymous racist has been identified, Sarah Daniels, the Dean of Students who started things spinning, has resigned from her post , convinced that despite her good intentions she herself may be the biggest racist of all. Though Ms. Gilman’s intentions are equally heartfelt, she keeps Simon, the black student under attack, offstage, reducing him to an Other --- his mere presence would speak louder than words --- nor am I convinced that black college students as described by Sarah act the same way as some junior high students do (i.e., traveling in gangs, shoving people out of the way, etc.) or that Sarah who had previously lived and worked in a large urban area would tend to view all African-Americans simply as Blacks who always need a helping hand (had Sarah been born and raised in predominantly white Vermont…maybe). The touches of faculty satire that streaked across Act One were eclipsed by the talk, talk, talk of Act Two where the characters became contrasting mouthpieces, their arguments so well-balanced that for all its noise the evening was dramatically static. SPINNING INTO BUTTER’s most humane and entertaining moments had nothing to do with racism but, rather, with Sarah’s rocky relationship with Ross Collins, a faculty member whose live-in lady friend had returned from overseas causing Ross to clumsily end their own affair yet still wanting to retain Sarah’s friendship.

But the production itself was wonderful, from Jenna McFarland’s crisp, representational office setting to Eric Engel’s trusting direction that allowed his actors to become talking heads if the mood or motivation struck them to do so to the flawless cast who had to wear October tweeds and sweaters in August humidity. Mr. Engel was wise to cast Denise Cormier, a sunny Joan of Arc, as Sarah; whereas a darker (i.e. personality-wise), troubled-looking actress would have triple-underlined everything, this Sarah’s gradual darkening added a poignancy to the old saw about roads and hells and good intentions. Marc Carver brought a rumpled, quixotic sexiness to Ross: here was a man who could drive a woman crazy with his romantic flip-flopping yet be such a warm, supporting friend afterwards that she would, no doubt, fall in love with him all over again. Ray Jenness was a relaxed and surprisingly worldly small-town security guard and Jared Swanson as the onstage minority student had little to do but make soapbox points. Risher Reddick was fascinating as a sleek, sly, well-to-do student who sees anti-racism as gold stars on his job resume --- I was convinced he was the anonymous racist and was rather disappointed when he dissolved into enlightened bear hugs in the end. As a silly-ass academic, Neil A. Casey seems destined to play all the Percy Pecksniffs ever written for the stage but continues to find varying shades in the two or three colors on his palette and Nancy E. Carroll’s ability to shine in anything she does, no matter how small, lent an automatic authority to the Head Dean trying to keep her college as far from scandal’s door as possible --- if you want to see what Ms. Carroll can do in a leading role, stick around when Gloucester Stage brings her back in its acclaimed production of COLLECTED STORIES; having seen it last year I can safely guarantee that Ms. Carroll’s author will be one of this year’s Great Ones, as well.


"Spinning into Butter" (11-29 August) STAGE
267 East Main Street, GLOUCESTER, MA
1 (978) 281-4433

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