Spinning into Butter
Seattle Repertory Theatre, 443-2222. Through April 14.

Call her the anti-Mamet: Rebecca Gilman adds her name to the Chicago playwrighting pantheon by pointing out the limits, not the expressive power, of daily vernacular. Her play Spinning into Butter culminates in a striking confessional about racism; a lesser playwright would mistake its flashes of insight for moments of transcendence. But Gilman is smarter than that. Her play's small-town college dean, Sarah Daniels, exposes culturally sensitive speech not as a breeding ground for hypocrisy--the common accusation--but as a tragic barrier to real communication. Daniels places such speech on an insidious par with the politically motivated passing of blame typical of the play's cloistered university workplace, the open-ended banalities of her pass-the-time workplace romance, or even her own heartfelt confession of racist feelings. For Gilman, speech without communication between individuals, language as an end in and of itself, may do more harm than good.

Because of the play's hesitancy to find solutions in dialogue, any production of Spinning into Butter demands patient acting and insightful direction--a grounding, physical presence greater than the sum of its wordplay. Seattle Repertory's production fails to meet that challenge. Julie Brinkman Hall as Dean Daniels communicates little more than vague, actorly gratitude at getting to play an interesting lead with solid laugh lines. Her straight-forward interpretation blends poorly with the broader, smirking portrayals of other administrators, and even the overly intense but memorable seriousness of Brian Homer as a disaffected minority student. When Hall's character finally rattles apart, her feelings of isolation lurch out of nowhere, more an indictment of the first act's lousy ensemble work than an expression of universal truth grounded in character. Divorced from thorough, visceral exploration, Spinning into Butter becomes a reasonably well-observed dramedy about small-town college office politics, with a plot twist straight out of Matlock. Two demerits.