Chicago Theatre Review
Racism in the Halls of Ivy
Spinning into Butter – Eclectic Theatre
When one thinks about the effects and repercussions of racism and bigotry rarely do the hallowed, ivy-covered walls of a university or private college come to mind. Yet Chicago-based, multi-award winning playwright Rebecca Gilman, who has a penchant for airing any number of social issues through her work, takes an unflinching, perhaps even controversial look at what it means to be a racist today in America.
Set at a fictional, predominantly white liberal arts college in Vermont, Gilman’s play opens with Sarah Daniels, the recently-hired Dean of Students, trying to help a young man secure a hefty scholarship earmarked for minority students. In order to be qualified for the financial assistance, she convinces Patrick Chibas, who proclaims he’s Nuryorican, to say that he’s Puerto Rican because it’s an ethnic group that the college will recognize and will be sure to grant him the monetary award.
This altruistic gesture snowballs into an accusation of racism, particularly after another student, an African-American named Simon Brick, begins receiving anonymous, offensive notes. Dean Catherine Kenny, Sarah’s administrator, meets with her along with Burton Strauss, the Head of Humanities, and Professor Ross Collins, in order to deal with this issue and keep the media from learning about the incident. They conclude that the best way to address this situation is to form a student/faculty forum on race relations; however, as led by the arrogant Professor Strauss, the organization proves ineffectual. Events rage out of control and both the Patrick Chibas and Simon Brick incidents end up exposing a newly unexpected layer of racism among the faculty and administration.
Andrew Pond’s production moves forward steadily, letting the events unfold naturally, allowing his audience to discover who these seven characters are in due time. How the racially motivated incident affects each of them and how it changes their relationships is exactly what Ms. Gilman sought to showcase through her play. And, much to the credit of this cast, although we never actually see Simon Brick, his presence is just as real and meaningful as the other characters. Transitions between scenes, however, seem a little awkward in this intimate space, with only a single door through which actors can enter and exit the stage. To indicate the passage of time, costume changes occur in the wings; but in the dimmed lighting between scenes, it often looks like the characters are chasing each other out the door.
Jessica Lauren Fisher does a fine job in the constantly demanding role of Sarah Daniels. Her interaction with two of her students is honest and caring, while her relationships with her administrative peers, particularly with Ross Collins, is painfully realistic. The audience almost cheers when Sarah finally tells off annoying Dean Burton Strauss (played abrasively loud and appropriately pompous by David Belew), and her bond with Mr. Meyers, the campus security office (a nicely paternal David Elliott) is tender and almost heartwarming. Patrick Iven’s portrayal of Collins, not only a colleague but Ms. Daniel’s romantic interest, is one of the strongest and most sincere in this cast. Lisa Savegnago’s Dean Kenny is a one-note bully, which is how this authority figure’s written. Rolo Rodriguez, as minority student Patrick Chibas, and Jonathan Helvey, as Greg Sullivan, the Ivy League leader of Students for Tolerance, both play their roles with authentic collegiate gusto.
Rebecca Gilman’s play sparked a certain amount of controversy when it first premiered in 1999 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and again when it opened a year later at New York’s Lincoln Center. The play was accused of inciting racial problems, but most playgoers recognize that the playwright’s intention was to expose a problem whose existence is often denied. Since then, this country has made some advances in racial relations, but racism, although sometimes buried beneath political correctness, is still just as prevalent as it was then. Eclectic Theatre’s production demonstrates the lasting power and relevancy of Ms. Gilman’s play today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented by Eclectic Theatre Company at the Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 2, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Athenaeum box office or by going to www.eclectic-theatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.