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PC Pieties on Trial 

Piedmont Players take on good script

Journeying less than an hour from Charlotte on I-85, my wife and I discovered an alternate theater universe in downtown Salisbury. The Meroney Theater, undergoing a lengthy process of renovation, offers a magnificent lobby and a fine balconied hall. Set and lighting design by company director Reid Leonard, for the current Spinning Into Butter, are tasteful and refined. Sound amplification by Lee Spears is admirably discreet. Although the opening night crowd looked older on average than even our CPCC faithful, the Piedmont Players Theatre isn't spoonfeeding them pabulum.

Rebecca Gilman's drama is a frontal assault on liberal university pieties. At the center of the maelstrom is Sarah Daniels, the dean of students at Belmont College -- up in Vermont, not Gaston County. A refugee from a small college in Pittsburgh, where the reality of a multi-ethnic campus stomped on her ideals, Daniels still strives ardently to "help minorities."

So she latches on to Patrick Chibas and attempts to dump a $12,000 scholarship in his lap. Patrick is wary of Daniels' intentions, skeptical that he merits the subsidy, and sensitive about being a labeled a Puerto Rican or a Hispanic in order to score the dough. But he yields to Sarah's good intentions and allows her to apply the label that wins the prize.

Meanwhile, a lonely black student receives hate letters, and somebody throws a brick through his dorm window. Against Daniels' recommendation that the black student's feelings should be respected, Dean Burton Strauss, the chair of the Humanities Department, responds by calling for a campus forum on race relations. PC damage control.

When Chibas attempts to voice his feelings, Dean Strauss interrupts and thunders a defensive, self-righteous tirade. Patrick retaliates by penning an editorial in the student newspaper denouncing the PC smugness at Belmont.

Gilman's assault on reverse discrimination is all the more telling because, unlike the notorious lawsuit launched against the University of Michigan, it's fired by a beneficiary of the discrimination, one who feels patronized and humiliated by the favoritism. And there's no question about the favoritism: confronted by Chibas on the justification for his scholarship, Dean Daniels must admit that she really hasn't read his record. The ethnic label has become more important to her than the actual student.

Patrick's disenchantment has a disturbing plausibility. His subsequent radicalization, stemming from the righteous social engineering of clueless liberals, is an audacious twist. Package that with a potent denunciation of the white establishment and you have sufficient fuel for a fairly provocative, explosive evening.

Gilman takes us further and deeper, reaching peak power in a stunning purgation from the disgraced Dean Daniels. In an extended confession, lightly punctuated by her closest confidante, art history professor Ross Collins, she takes us painfully through her disillusionment back in Pittsburgh, closely analyzing and tracing the cancerous growth of her own racism. The chronology, the futile efforts she makes to avoid the disease, and -- worst of all -- the symptoms will strike many in the audience with the force of a personal indictment.

Unfortunately, nobody in the Salisbury talent pool has emerged who can take us as deep as Gilman could carry us on a visceral level. Sarah Lewis delivers the meaning of Dean Daniels' monologue clearly enough, but there's hardly one convincing peep into her soul -- either her personal insecurities or her ethical torment.

All the supporting cast admirably executes Leonard's directions, but the only spark comes from Bob Paolino as the pompous Dean Strauss.

Still, if you crave exposure to one of the finer scripts of the new millennium, Piedmont's Spinning Into Butter will reward your time and curiosity. With curtain time at 213 South Main Street set for 7:30, the final curtain came down at a very convenient 9:38pm.

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