For 17 years, TheaterWorks has offered Hartford theatergoers a gutsily programmed alternative to the 2,800-seat Bushnell’s touring Broadway shows and 489-seat Hartford Stage’s large-scale major resident theater offerings. Now, following productions of “‘Lobby Hero,” “Three Days of Rain,” “Fully Committed” and “The Credeaux Canvas,” it’s completing its 2001-02 season with “Spinning Into Butter,” Rebecca Gilman’s risky play about racism on a “liberal” college campus, in a production the theater believes to be the most ambitious in its history. With an all-Equity cast of New York-based actors and a beautiful set, it more than lives up to TheaterWorks’ ambitions. This is an assured, sensitively cast, produced and directed production with a splendid performance by Henny Russell in the central role. It would stand tall on any resident theater’s stage anywhere.
There’s no doubt it benefits from the intimacy of TheaterWorks’ basement theater, in which the audience is both entertained and jolted by a play that forces anyone seeing it to consider his or her own feelings about, to put it politically correctly, “people of color.” No one in the play has to do so more joltingly than Dean Sarah Daniels (Russell), an administrator at Vermont’s small, smug, mostly white Belmont College.
At first all seems well with her and Belmont as she speaks with Patrick Chibas (Luis A. Laporte Jr.), a student of color, about the possibility of a $12,000 scholarship. But Sarah’s world begins to shake when her art professor lover (Chris Hutchison) enters her office to announce that their affair is over (his former girlfriend has returned). And it shatters when racist notes are found posted on the door of another student of color.
Before long the whole college is ankle-deep in quicksand, and the more it struggles and rationalizes, the deeper it sinks. Along the way the play and the production are funny and discomfiting, wise and pungent, even if, probably inevitably, it ends with few answers to the question of racism.
Russell couldn’t be bettered as Dean Sarah, a young woman who has fled a job at a Chicago college because of racial frictions there and sought a haven at Belmont. She’s now forced to face her built-in racism and fears of some people of color. Russell’s personal warmth and the subtlety of her performance suffuse her role and the production as a whole with intelligence and passion.
The rest of the cast lives up to her. Laporte, with the support of director Steve Campo, refuses to make his “minority” character too sympathetic. After all, Patrick has a perfect right to be ticked off by the patronizing treatment he’s received at Belmont. Hutchison is suitably arty-unkempt as Sarah’s lover-turned-friend. Maeve McGuire (in particular) and Edwin J. McDonough are just right as additional Belmont deans full of self-satisfaction. And Charles Stransky as a college staffer and Gregory Patrick Jackson as a white student from (big laugh) rich, white Greenwich, Conn., are fine.
Campo’s direction keeps this first-rate production moving briskly and pointedly, the only possible quibble with it being that some of Sarah’s neatly in-character costumes aren’t as well cut and sewn as they should be.