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Spinning Into Butter
by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
August 29th, 2015

John Contini, Kurt Knoedelseder, Jenni Ryan, Erin Kelley Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

John Contini, Kurt Knoedelseder, Jenni Ryan, Erin Kelley, John J. O’Hagan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s season-ending production, Spinning Into Butter, deals with important issues that are more timely than ever in today’s world. It’s a well-structured play given an impressive presentation at Insight. With a strong cast and excellent production values, this play is sure to make audiences think.

In this play, playwright Rebecca Gilman has set this very issue-oriented story into specific context. The central figure, Sarah Daniel (Jenni Ryan), the Dean of Students at a small Vermont college, deals with the struggles of how to confront various situations that arise among students of color at her predominantly white college. There’s Patrick Chibas (Rahames Galvan), who qualifies for a scholarship but is uncomfortable with the categories regarding ethnicity on the application form. There’s also the unseen Simon Brick, an African-American student who has been receiving hateful anonymous messages.  When Sarah brings in her fellow academics to deal with the crisis, their answers are problematic, to say the least. These situations set in motion a series of events that eventually leads to Sarah’s confronting herself and her own attitudes.

This is a well-structured play, presenting Sarah as a well-meaning but somewhat confused academic official surrounded by others who don’t help the situation. There are two figures who serve as more reasonable sounding boards–professer Ross Collins (John J. O’Hagan), who has complicated personal relationship with Sarah; and Mr. Meyers, the campus security officer who acts as something of an unofficial spokesperson for Simon. The antagonists are Deans Catherine Kenney (Erin Kelley) and Burton Strauss (John Contini), who often appear to be more concerned with the college’s reputation–or their own–than the needs of the students.  There’s also a young student, Greg Sullivan (Elliot Auch), who presents something of an enigma, in that his role in the story turns out to be much different than I was expecting. The issues raised here are complicated and vital, but the purpose here seems more to be a cause for reflection than anything else. Gilman doesn’t give easy answers, presenting subjects for drama and thought rather than offering easy solutions, since there are none to give.

The performances here are strong, led by the personable Ryan as Sarah, who goes on an obvious emotional journey through the course of the story. As the character begins to ask some extremely tough questions of herself, Ryan makes this process believable. She plays well opposite O’Hagan, who is likable as the conflicted but concerned Ross. Contini and Kelley are both memorable, giving a measure of depth to their roles as stuffy academics. Galavan, Auch, and Knoedelseder are all convincing in their roles, as well, with Knoedelseder emerging as probably the play’s wisest voice, and Auch convincingly portraying a character whose motives change in a somewhat surprising way.

As is usual for Insight, the technical aspects of this production are strong. The set, by Jeffrey Behm, is an appropriately detailed representation of a well-appointed academic’s office.  Tracey Newcomb’s costumes suit the characters well, the the sound (by Robin Weatherall) and lighting (by Paige Seber) are suitably effective.  The scene changes can occasionally last a little too long, but I hope that’s a detail that can be ironed out as the show’s run continues.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn from this play is that these topics require honest thought and dialogue. A show like this is there to simply help start the discussion. Insight’s well-staged production does that about as effectively as I can imagine, with a strong cast and staging that manages to take issues out of the realm of the theoretical and make them effectively personal.

John J. O'Hagan, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

John J. O’Hagan, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s production of Spinning Into Butter runs at the Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves until September 13th, 2015.

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