Examining the way we frame our attitudes towards and our responses to racism, Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning Into Butter," directed by Gregory Cohen for the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, lends wonderful shades to what, for some, is a black and white issue. The production's overall tone is thoughtful and unsettling because it confirms that racism is more pervasive than we might care to admit. Challenging, thought provoking, and revelatory, it looks at racism from many angles, some obvious, some surprisingly not.
The story's set in the present, at the imaginary Belmont College in Vermont. The fact that it's contemporary doesn't mean that discrimination doesn't exist, it's just that it's not so much an issue on a primarily Caucasian campus. Until now, that is. The play opens, somewhat humorously, as an example of cookie cuttered ethnic labels. Student Patrick Chibas (Tito Ortiz) has to provide a templated description of his ethnicity for a scholarship application. Hispanic? No. Latino? No. He's Nuyorican but there's no box to check off for that. He settles for Hispanic and, though he got the scholarship, his belief that he had to compromise his identity had dire consequences for Dean Sarah Daniels (Rebecca Cherkoss). That incident sets the tone for the rest of the play. When one of the school's few African-American students, Simon Brick (not shown on stage) becomes the victim of a hate crime, the all-white administration, Ross Collins (Christopher Brennan), Catherine Kenney (Jane Nunn) and Burton Strauss (Kevin Michael Moran), resort to a business-as-usual reaction: a pointless public forum to yammer on about the issue. Sarah, seemingly liberal, cosmopolitan, and compassionate, has to redefine her own thoughts on racism and its her resolution that gives the production a compelling edge which reminds us the best way to deal with the issue is to honestly examine one's own feelings, thoughts, and motivations.
Gilman has a good sense of the backslapping and clueless thought processes that administer the education of the nation's youth. Though her characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, their true, unexamined selves are visible just below the surface of their liberal college veneer. Avoiding stereotypes, Cohen gets nuanced and nicely balanced performances from his cast. At the same time enlightened and culpable, Cherkoss draws upon a full range of emotions to portray do-gooder Sarah's spiraling situation. Brennan is amusing as her ex-lover and, when her chips are down, as someone to talk to. Nunn is formidable as an I-am-what-I-am political lackey while Moran lends private school arrogance and not a little unexpected contrition to the proceedings.
Sean Gray's depiction of a book-lined dean's office continues to amaze with what can be done on that narrow stage, though it's humorous to note that two of the large volumes Sarah was packing into boxes were from the tweenage "Twilight" series.
Performances are 8pm, Fri. & Sat, 2pm, Sun. The show runs until June 26. Tickets are $12-22. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. For more info call 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.