‘Spinning Into Butter’ handles hot-button issues well

Social issues are playwright Rebecca Gilman’s forte, and “Spinning Into Butter,” a work that premiered in 1999, seems ripped from today’s headlines.

Frankly addressing the hot-button topic of race and minority relations, Gilman explores how our personal experiences, beliefs and prejudices come into play.

For its final production of its eighth season, Insight Theatre Company tackles this challenging work with a clear purpose and a fine ensemble.

The play takes place in present time at a liberal arts college in Vermont. The students are mostly affluent Caucasians, with a small number of students of color providing a smidgeon of diversity.

When an African-American student is the target of hate notes and threats, the administrators meet to develop a plan.

Through the richly detailed characters and sharp, witty dialogue, Gilman looks at how we view each other, making knee-jerk assumptions and skirting issues that make us uncomfortable.

Jenni Ryan evolves as Sarah Daniel, a well-intentioned Dean of Students, who is trying to work through the scandal while being pulled in many directions. She must re-examine how she thinks and acts along the way, and Ryan excels at showing her character’s growth. It’s an engaging, layered performance.

In her tastefully appointed office, she is candid with Ross Collins, an art professor and recent paramour who has decided instead to take up again with a dance instructor back from sabbatical. John O’Hagen captures this guy in a noteworthy, natural way, and the pair work well together — their discussions percolate with warmth and humor.

The arrogant Dean Catherine Kenney, crisply played by Erin Kelley, is an administrator who wants the situation downplayed, wringing her hands about public perception and media coverage. Shrill and devoid of compassion, she wants quick answers.

John Contini perfectly embodies a pompous intellectual snob. As Dean Burton Strauss, he is a man used to getting his way.

Their attempt to engage students in dialogue at a forum is not well-received, according to a minority student, Patrick Chibas, who is tired of labels and stereotypes. Rahames Galvan provides an interesting viewpoint as a young man who bristles at being patronized.

Elliott Auch smoothly portrays a go-getter student, Greg Sullivan, who volunteers to head a student activist group promoting tolerance. Of course it will look good because he plans to go to law school, but he means well.

Kurt Knoedelseder smartly plays a supporting role as the head of campus security.

These are intelligent people, some with greater degrees of myopia and narrow mindsets than others. But dancing around ugly truths won’t result in simple solutions.

Through her diverse characters, Gilman doesn’t hold back. She likes to stir the pot, and “Spinning Into Butter” not only confronts racism, but makes points about class, sex, and age, too.

Seeing people as human beings seems like such a simple goal, but as the play indicates, is much harder to achieve.

The resident playwright at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Gilman also wrote “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976,” which was produced at The Repertory Theatre in 2014, and won the Best New Play at the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards.

This work makes you think, and is a starting point for necessary conversations.

At a glance

What: "Spinning into Butter"

Who: Insight Theatre Company

When: Through Sept. 18; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall High School, 530 E. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, mo.

Tickets: www.insighttheatrecompany.com; 314-556-1293