Although its subject is controversial and its characters' responses are emotional, Shipping Dock's current, challenging production is thoughtful, rather low-key, and pleasant. Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter takes its central character, Sarah Daniels, the dean of students at an elegant, Vermont liberal arts college, through conflicts with both minority students who feel discriminated against and the conservative faculty and deans who want to keep a lid on any campus controversy.
Hate mail is showing up in an African-American student's dorm room. The resulting windy, one-sided faculty "forums" and a new, self-congratulating organization of students for "tolerance" --- the faculty-advised version --- just make things worse. Caught in the middle of the controversy, Sarah is led to question her own hidden racism. Ultimately, the establishment blocks any progress, the students who truly want to understand and communicate with each other learn to avoid faculty involvement by meeting secretly, and Sarah's honesty is rewarded with dismissal. This scenario doesn't sound like much fun, but in Gilman's witty and honest treatment, it plays out entertainingly.
Meanwhile, the day after the play opened, Felicia R. Lee'sNew York Times article on Arab-Jewish conflict on campuses reported the following: "Amid these tensions on campuses, a group that includes leading academics... and students has created a new organization they hope will dampen the ill will." So this play is not only topical but, perhaps, cynically relevant to simplistic efforts to solve ancient conflicts.
Observed sharply and revealingly, the warring participants here are developed characters, not stereotypes or walking points of view. Barbara Biddy's relaxed direction brings out portrayals that have depth and understanding. In other plays, Meg Devine has demonstrated an ability to suggest vulnerability even in sharp-tongued characters. Her self-tormented Sarah is a likable protagonist honest enough to expose her genuine failings. She shows us how painfully Sarah flails about to try to define what she understands, yet lets Sarah's comments and attitudes ring true against the others' self-deluded, smug articulateness. It's an involving performance.
Joe Tinkleman earns similar empathy playing a bright student frustrated by Sarah's efforts to help him because of his ethnic background, rather than seeing him as he is or hearing what he is trying to say. Sean Michael Smith manages surprising sympathy playing an art history professor who was no more honest when he was briefly Sarah's lover than he is now as a cowardly "crusading liberal" who avoids confrontation. Trish Ralph and Roger Gans are fun in their roles as more stereotypical "establishment" types. They bring out some unexpected complexities Gilman has given their characters. In a smaller role, Tim Goodwin [a City contributor] plays a self-serving, ambitious student who organizes the "tolerance" group mostly because doing so will look good on his law school application, but who learns that he harbors genuine impulses to do good. And Ed Scutt is reassuringly solid as an uncomplicated security guard who may be the one simply honest, decent person on campus.
I like John Jaeger's simple set, which suggests a real place. And the whole production has a nice sense of reality. As for the title: One hate note called the young man "Little Black Sambo" --- if you know that annoying story, you'll get Gilman's annoying reference.
Dance Note: Fans of Timothy Draper's Rochester City Ballet and its most recent alumna, Sarah Kathryn Lane, can take pride in noting the two-page spread on Sarah in the October issue of Dance Magazine, the world's largest magazine on dance. DM's New York editor, Wendy Perron's, article includes a full-page colorphoto of Lane and a glowing description of her medal-winning performances at the Youth America Grand Prix and USA International Ballet Competition. It also discusses her current appointment to American Ballet Theatre's studio company and the Outstanding Teacher award that Draper won in New York.