Based on the brief playbill summary of this new Rebecca Gilman play, set in an upper-crust Vermont college plagued by racial conflict, it's easy to assume that the script will be just another tame parable about racism and political correctness. And, in fact, that assumption is not entirely inaccurate, since much of the play is tempered by a light albeit enjoyably satirical tone. Here, serious subject matter is couched in a work suffused with a host of comedic elements: Dean Sarah Daniels, the play's beleaguered, liberal-minded white protagonist, is a comedic personality, prone to launching pithy one-liners with dry cynicism; her colleagues, one of whom has just jilted Sarah with humiliating abruptness, are a laughably pompous bunch; and Gilman's subplots, which poke fun at office politics and the stuffy bureaucracy of collegiate administration, are amusingly absurd. Overall, this is a witty script with a satisfying rhythm that clips along like a familiar, well-oiled sitcom.
And yet, comical context notwithstanding, Gilman's script cannot be labeled as lightweight when it finally gets down to the sobering issue at its core. Going to the opposite extreme, this explosive play actually reveals an intensely refreshing, almost shocking candor when Sarah, troubled by recent threats against one of the college's African-American students, is forced to deal with the college's patronizing solution to the problem, as well as her own unpopular opinions on the subject of racism. Ultimately, her revelations—expressed in a provocative, angry, second-act speech—prove to be a stimulating turning point in the play. More important, however, Sarah's frank admissions offer a thought-provoking turning point for the audience, inspiring theatregoers to seriously contemplate just how honest we can—or should—be about our own conscious and unconscious racist feelings.
Skillfully capturing the humor and powerful emotion inherent in Gilman's work, the Laguna Playhouse has effected an invigorating Southern California premiere production. Director Donna Inglima keeps an even, thoughtful pace that serves both the breezy comedy and the unflinching solemnity of Gilman's text. And the performers here are a tight-knit, dynamic group. Jordan Baker, as Sarah, delivers her character's deadpan lines with impeccable timing. She also tenders a vulnerable portrait of a woman at war with her outward progressiveness and inner prejudices. Her supporting team is likewise engaging, with Kevin Symons turning in the most intriguing portrayal as Ross, the seemingly insensitive professor who has just dumped Sarah. With engaging, understated appeal, Symons subtly highlights his character's fundamental astuteness, as Ross suggests to Sarah that combating racism doesn't necessarily require grandiose strategies but rather should start with the most elementary component: the individual.
"Spinning Into Butter," presented by and at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 8 p.m. Sept. 9-Oct. 7. $38-45. (949) 497-2787.