The opening sequence of Spinning Into Butter feels cozy, comfortable and familiar – a student is called into a typical dean’s office, not too cluttered or pristine. Maura McGinn plays Dean Sarah Daniels with accuracy and precision, pulling bifocals in place when necessary, trying to find a way to help a struggling yet promising college student with scholarship funds, slipping a quick kiss to a colleague/lover. As the scene unfolds, though, it becomes evident that the comfortable patterns will soon be shattered – the student doesn’t want to be labeled in one of the traditional or “accepted” minority categories, the boyfriend is recommitting to a former lover and breaking up with her, and someone is terrorizing one of the black student leaving racially tinged and denigrating notes on his door. Within moments, the everyday familiar has careened into uncomfortable territory filled with self-examination, recrimination, apprehension, and discomfort. This is vintage (playwright) Rebecca Gilman who is notorious for pulling no punches. In the capable hands of Journeymen Theater, you can trust you’ll come through in one piece.
McGinn stays front and center as the harried dean of students. Having performed in ensembles and as a supporting character throughout the metro area, she finally gets a chance to shine, and is a wonder to behold in this difficult role. She has an enormous range of emotional subtext and glides effortlessly through what would be a minefield for a less skilled actor. The play opens with her having an uncomfortable exchange with the student that sets the premise for the piece. She handles the situation with strength and assurance, yet in the shark laden faculty den, she is seen as weak and compromised. Her vulnerable side becomes evident in the next scene when she is unceremoniously dumped by her “boyfriend.” Within moments she goes from being emotionally guarded, to shocked about his deception, angry with his duplicity, resigned to accept his “let’s be friends” offer, sheds an obligatory tear when he leaves, then pulls it together to see the throng of waiting and needy students. McGinn proves that she has the chops to maintain the focus of attention whether delivering the lines or listening intently to all who show up at her office-which, by the way, is the setting for the entire show, no let-up, no side spots, everything happens within her four walls. As such, her character is the central focus of attention. When the news of the taunting racial notes hits like a bombshell, everybody is hit with shrapnel, but the play mostly explores her reactions to the catalytic events and carefully exposes evidence of early shrapnel bits already buried deep inside of her.
As the focus of the script, McGinn’s character is the cultural messenger, she bares the burden of baring her soul, speaking for many who feel the same but who dare not utter the words for fear of retribution and being considered racist. The script explores the power and use of words, defining them, having characters look them up in the big Oxford dictionary, even hurling the book to the ground for a cathartic moment of emotional release. Still, instead of defining racism, the script offers a fractured kaleidoscopic perspective of its subtle effects on lives, including the disenfranchised minorities who are categorized, run from, ignored, and hurt.
Spinning into Butter hits raw nerves, and it was difficult to listen to some of the descriptions of black people in unflattering though realistic situations. The script hides nothing, makes no pretense of political correctness, and offers no subtleties or excuses. Having worked in an inner city school, Dean Sarah Daniels has the war wounds that precipitated her flight to the whitest area she could find, a small college in Vermont. Having “done her time” in the black environment, she shares heartbreakingly honest judgments about the offensive behavior she has witnessed, to the point of emotionally associating with the white girl victim in Richard Wright’s Native Son. Despite the increasing multiculturalism in the nation, we seem no closer to dealing with the racial divide than in the world of Bigger Thomas. And that’s what makes this play so difficult to watch- so much pain is brought to the surface without resolve. The final moments where Dean Daniels comforts the still unseen black student touchingly remind us that the divide can only be crossed on personal levels of caring.
McGinn is well supported by the rest of the cast-what a treat to see Deborah Kirby, founder and producer strut her stuff as tough as nails Dean Kenney. The production team-set by Tracie Lynn Duncan and lighting by Harold F. Burgess – created a comfortable and accessible physical space, the soft light glowing behind the gracefully draped suspended windows is exceptionally effective, and the director, Jeff Keenan, keeps everything in motion and everyone on pointe.
In this new reality show season of “Black and White” and Survivor by racial clan, kudos to Journeymen Theater for selecting and mastering this controversial work to elevate the discussions of race and class in America.
Spinning into Butter plays at the WSC Clark Street Playhouse (601 S Clark St, Arlington, VA) Sept 6 – 30, evenings, Wednesday thru Saturday with an additional Saturday matinee.Tickets: $20.