Story: Sarah Daniel is Dean of Students at Belmont, a small, liberal arts college in Vermont. She’s recently moved there from Pennsylvania and doesn’t know too many people. She’s started a relationship with Ross Collins, a professor at Belmont, and is upset when he tells her that his former lover has moved back.

Sarah’s troubled social life is trumped by two incendiary events on campus. A young man named Patrick Chibas, who considers himself “Nuyorican,” is prodded by Sarah to list his ethnicity as Hispanic in order to qualify for a scholarship. This results in Patrick losing his financial aid as well as angering his father for proclaiming a false heritage.

Additionally, freshman Simon Brick, one of the few African-American students at the school, has been the recipient of racist notes at his dorm room. Sarah meets with Ross and two deans, Burton Strauss and Catherine Kenney, to discuss possible responses to this inflammatory situation. While Sarah recommends cautiously dealing first with the student, the others opt for a more visible display of the administration’s support for Simon and disdain for his tormentors.

While tensions on campus escalate and the administration grows more anxious, Sarah is ordered to craft a plan on how to eliminate racism at Belmont. As she delves further into the issues, however, she realizes that she herself may be more of the problem than the solution.

Highlights: Insight Theatre Company concludes its 2015 season with a compelling rendition of Rebecca Gilman’s complex and complicated story about our times and the ongoing racial strife in America. Director Trish Brown coaxes intelligent performances from her veteran performers to show how Spinning into Butter remains relevant 16 years after its premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

Other Info: With no easy answers and no pat solutions, Gilman’s story about the lingering effects of racial unease reveals how the best-intentioned people can harbor secret prejudices. Dante wrote that “each of us has thoughts that would shame hell,” an observation that fits those in charge at tiny Belmont College, even while they are convinced that they are sophisticated and egalitarian.

It’s a difficult proposition for Gilman to populate her script with characters that are less admirable upon scrutiny, but to her credit she keeps her premise clear even while occasionally devolving into melodrama. That’s particularly the case with Ross, who seems too weak and ineffectual to garner much attraction, let alone have two women in pursuit of him.

John O’Hagan does a solid job conveying Ross’ uncertainties, though, and even steps up his game in a pivotal scene with Jenni Ryan as Sarah in the second act, showing empathy as well as a degree of understanding of Sarah’s fragile condition.

Ryan carries the burden of interpreting Sarah’s role with a multi-layered performance that accentuates the character’s admirable traits as well as her own fears, limitations and liabilities. She is able to portray how Sarah can be both well-meaning and destructive at the same time, not always virtuous yet not a villain beyond hope, either.

Brown benefits from the savvy contributions of John Contini and Erin Kelley as thick-headed deans who manage to make a bad situation worse with their myopic approach. Contini displays Strauss’ bluster as well as his childish impulses to get what he wants without having a second thought about his appearance. When Strauss recites the controversial children’s story, Little Black Sambo (from where the drama’s title originates), he fully believes that the college and its restless students will benefit from his curious style of leadership.

Kelley is equally adept at mining the mean-spirited, self-centered interests of Dean Kenney, who can shove Sarah under the bus in a single-focused effort to protect the bucolic image of the nearly all-white school.

Kurt Knoedelseder serves well as Mr. Meyers, a kind of Yoda-esque head of campus security who seems to be wiser and more tolerant of the human condition than his more learned counterparts and serves as an ally of Sarah. Rahames Galvan captures the independent and practical spirit of Patrick to a certain degree, as does Elliott Auch as a WASPish senior in search of a cause to pad his resume before applying to law school.

All of the action plays out in Sarah’s office, a handsome set designed by Jeffrey Behm that includes not only bookcases and an expansive desk but a mini-fridge and a bar as well, with lighting design by Natalie Arco. Robin Weatherall’s sound design underscores the melancholy complexity of Gilman’s story and Tracey Newcomb adds a nice touch with her costumes, highlighted by Dean Kenney’s repressive black suit to contrast with Ross’ more laid-back look.

Brown’s director notes make some interesting points as she remarks about a script that “delves into deep, often uncomfortable societal issues that are left largely unexplored or explored only on the surface.” Her pacing could be picked up at times, which would remove the show from its more melodramatic scenes, but in general she does a good job with a reasoned reading of an intelligent script.

Spinning into Butter raises numerous, stark questions about the relative understanding of race in America across varied backgrounds. Insight Theatre’s intelligent presentation challenges its audience to form their own conclusions.

Play: Spinning into Butter

Company: Insight Theatre Company

Venue: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall High School, 530 East Lockwood Avenue

Dates: September 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 13

Tickets: $15-$35; contact, or 314-556-1293

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb

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