“Spinning Into Butter,” by the American playwright Rebecca Gilman (seen here), based on her own experiences with racially charged issues, is currently at Stagecrafters, 8130 Germantown Ave., until Feb. 17. The play debuted in Chicago in 1999 and was named one of the best plays of 1999 by Time magazine.

by Hugh Hunter

After ignoring the role race plays in American life for 200 years, contemporary theater now embraces the subject with hypnotic interest. Running at Stagecrafters, “Spinning Into Butter” (1999) by Rebecca Gilman spotlights a pastoral Vermont college suddenly beset with racial turmoil.

The play opens to a vista of ethnic conflict. Dean Sarah Daniels tries to financially assist Latino Patrick Chibas (Carlos Jiga) but only manages to insult his sensibilities. Then a black freshman finds racist notes posted to his dormitory door. The incident is abhorrent to Sarah, but it’s just a troublesome media circus to her besieged administrator cohorts.

Under veteran director Catherine Pappas, there is much to like. Patricia Masarachia’s well-conceived set design is the spacious, booklined office of Dean Sarah. Especially striking are the rear wall of windows (courtesy of the Rick Stewart workshop) and the suggestion of an exit corridor. Thus, unseen by Dean Sarah herself, you get to see ironical shifts in each characters’ attitude and bearing after they leave her office.

Pappas draws strong, comedy-tinged performances from her supporting cast. Lorraine Barrett (Dean Catherine Kenney) and Joe Tranchitella (Dean Burton Strauss) compete as clueless college administrators. Jim Broyles (Ross Collins) jealously protects his academia privileges, sexual and otherwise. Nolan Maher (Greg Sullivan) is a slickster undergrad with lawyerly ambitions.

Robert Toczek, as security guard Mr. Meyers, is the only straight shooter in the bunch. At its best, “Spinning Into Butter” works as a satire of the college life. Apart from Sarah, the adults in charge talk a good game about student empowerment but are mainly concerned with keeping up their academic careers and comforts.

Sarah, alone, stands out as being genuinely concerned with racial justice — but, oh my, so concerned. She reflects obsessively on her lifelong history of dealings with blacks, dissecting and bemoaning her every encounter. We learn a lot about Sarah but only through the lens of racial propriety. (Is she covertly praising herself for “honesty?”)

Actress Jen Allegra gives it the old college try and is engaging in the role of Dean Sarah. When the script gives her a chance, Allegra is bemused and comically detached. And when in the throes of distressed recollections (which Sarah is much of the time), Allegra stays pensive and deeply internal.

Gilman’s script is well-intentioned and ends on a cheerful note. Turns out, the entire race issue is less obstreperous for the kids. Even Sarah finds a way to gracefully leave a stifling academic life. You are glad to leave with her, and you look forward to a day when Gilman can find a way to fold Sarah’s sackcloth-and-ashes piety into the playwright’s finely satirical outlook.

Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Spinning Into Butter” will run through Feb 17. Tickets at 215-247-8881 or thestagecrafters.org

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