When Rebecca Gilman’s “The Glory of Living,” premiered at a tiny Chi theater in 1997, it was the most arresting debut by a hitherto unknown scribe that the Windy City had seen in years. Subsequently produced at London’s Royal Court, the success of that dark drama finally attracted the attention of the Goodman Theater, which commissioned Gilman’s splendid latest effort. A searing and gutsy exploration of white, liberal racism on an East Coast college campus, “Spinning Into Butter” is further confirmation that this astoundingly talented 34-year-old writer is poised to have a major impact on the American theater.
That will, of course, take a major New York production, which is long overdue in Gilman’s case. With one interior set, seven characters and a controversial, issue-based narrative that recalls “Oleanna” (albeit sans the sexism and with worthier intent), “Spinning Into Butter” has palpable commercial potential. Someone should bite fast.
Set on a bucolic but hardly diverse Vermont campus (seemingly a thinly veiled version of Middlebury, where Gilman herself went to school), action here revolves around a liberal, single, thirtysomething dean of students named Sarah Daniels (played by Mary Beth Fisher).
After a romantic affair with a dissembling faculty member goes sour, Dean Daniels’ world further falls apart when she hears that someone has been pinning racist notes on the dorm-room door of one of the college’s few African-American students.
The news that there is an overt racist in their midst provokes much soul-searching among the various old-world, backbiting teachers and administrators who make up Gilman’s cast of characters. In typical academic fashion, the school sets up focus groups and forums, but the minority students balk. By the surprise end of the play, the whole community has been swallowed by a self-made crisis that threatens its very foundation.
Gilman’s main point here is to expose the underlying racism that can be found among the intellectually arrogant whites who talk a good game about diversity but nonetheless have neither the experience not the requisite understanding of the minority experience. The black student in question never appears in the play — adding to the theme that ignorance and objectification usually flow together.
The most arresting section of the play comes in the second act when the increasingly self-aware Daniels has a lengthy monologue in which she reveals her own racist thoughts in such excruciating detail that the suddenly silent Goodman audience seemed to be in the midst of a collective squirm. Since this character has hitherto been entirely sympathetic, the revelation has a staggering impact.
The irony here, of course, is that this nice, liberal, Caucasian woman articulates precisely the sentiments — blacks are to be avoided on trains, and so on — that many educated whites feel but keep to themselves. And that is precisely the authorial point.
There are those who would doubtless find the expression of such racist sentiments offensive, regardless of the intent. And there’s no question that Gilman forces audience members to take a journey into their own psyches that many might resist. But that’s all the more reason it’s a play of blistering force.
Les Waters’ premiere production is a generally strong and slickly directed piece of work, with lead Mary Beth Fisher suitably complex in the role of the much-maligned dean of students. There are also splendidly dark turns from Robert Brueler and Mary Ann Thebus as a pair of nasty administrators, and intelligent work from Jim Leaming as the dean’s hapless former lover.
The overly long script could easily lose about 15 minutes from its second act. And Gilman’s ending — composed of a telephone call — is unsatisfying. But those problems could easily be fixed by a remarkable and nervy young playwright who likes to churn up complacency.