"Public dialogue is never real dialogue," says Dean of Students Sara Daniels, played by Tricia Miller Hewson. It's one of many powerful observations made by "Spinning Into Butter," a 1999 play by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Richard Pahl and produced by Sean Hargadon of Janus Theatre Company. The play opened Friday at the Elgin Art Showcase.
It's a continuation of Janus' season-long series entited "Inspired By ..." which attempts to understand, through theater, the creation, debate and removal of Elgin's "American Nocturne" mural in 2016. "Spinning" addresses the question, "How do we talk about race?"
In a series of scenes full of lots of private dialog, a small New England college struggles with its response to incidents of racial hostility. Art truly imitates life in this play: there's lots of words and not much action, and public remarks on racism make an all-white audience rather uncomfortable.
Tricia Miller Hewson ("Sarah Daniels") handled her huge leading role very nicely, anchored by a long confessional exposition toward the end. A stalwart supporting cast led by Justin Schaller ("Ross Collins") were able to differentiate their characters into various shades of whiteness. Spencer Huffman ("Greg Sullivan") gave an especially controlled and convincing performance in a smaller role.
A 360-degree stage setup made beautiful use of the space in keeping with this company's up-close style, and the face-to-face audience arrangement added depth and meaning to the script. The brisk and often tense lines were generally easy to hear and the lighting and sound where excellent in design and execution.
"Spinning Into Butter" leaves us with unanswered questions about race and more. Do we create a false "otherness" by recognizing individuality? Does our class membership determine what we're allowed to think and say? Is justice possible in a diverse society? But two things this play is sure of: generalizing about racism is as bad as generalizing about race; and authentic dialogue must be private and intentional.
You can participate in the public/private conversation by seeing "Spinning Into Butter" Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through March 25th at the Elgin Art Showcase. For tickets and more information, go to www.janusplays.com.