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Theater Review: Spinning Precisely

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 27, 2006 9:55PM

College is a social powder keg. Students meet classmates from places they’ve only seen on a map. Members of the entitled class share rooms with the scholarship students. Freshmen meet people who look different, worship different, and think different and, if they’re humanities majors, engage theories about what it all means. Professors and administrators don’t make things any easier. Forests are sacrificed for underinformed theses about “the other” in literature and society. We shouldn’t be judged by the color of our skin, unless financial aid or heritage awards are at stake. Racial discrimination is petty and wrong, but so are some of the remedies dreamt up to combat it.

Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter, which Eclipse Theatre brings back to Chicago as part of their season-long tribute to the local playwright, takes us to this contentious atmosphere and lights a match. When racist notes are found at an African-American student’s dorm room, green but well-intentioned Dean Sarah Daniels (Kerry Richlan) is charged with making things right. Dean and department head Catherine Kenney (Cheri Chenoweth) asks her to squelch negative publicity and make the problem go away. Old-school Dean Burton Strauss (Larry Baldacci) is appointed to foster campus dialogue, but would rather deconstruct the situation than lead discussion. Greg Sullivan (Joe Sherman), one of Sarah’s students, finds a student group to help spread tolerance and pad his law school applications.

There’s a riveting subplot where Sarah helps her advisee Patrick (Gerardo Cardenas) win a scholarship by advising him to check Hispanic on his application, even though he’s Nuyorican. The money spurs further dilemmas and exposes her inability to understand who he is or what he wants. By Act II, the energy in their confrontations upstages the other story.

spinningcouple.JPGDirector Anish Jethmalani has cast a strong ensemble, capturing completely the Ivory Tower’s insular atmosphere and the machinations of petty power struggles. Ms. Daniels exudes a fragile authority, and plays two characters quite well: the dutiful bureaucrat carefully choosing her words and the disillusioned activist letting loose with a disjointed racist diatribe that feels disturbing yet honest (you thought you hated the CTA…). As her awkward confidant Ross, Robert McLean thinly masks his capacity to hurt with a restrained disposition that complements Sarah’s crises. Chenowith and Baldacci have found the pulse of the old guard who don’t know and don’t care that they’re out of touch, we admired their performances as much as we disliked their pomposity. Sherman and Cardenas shine a much-needed light on the students playing and being played by the system.

Gilman’s script works because it is not really about race wars, racism, or political correctness. It’s about trying to do what’s right when you haven’t a clue what that is. It’s about the havoc wreaked by strongly held ideals and the harm we inflict when we try to cover up our own flaws. Gilman deals with larger issues, but her great strength is exposing our ugly and beautiful humanity, letting us laugh along the way. If you’re ready to laugh and grit your teeth, possibly at the same time, this show’s for you.

Spinning Into Butter continues at Victory Gardens, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Thursday - Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm through September 3. Tickets are $17-22, $25 for the August 3 "Theater Thursday" performance. More information at

Photos by Betsy Lent, Eclipse Theatre