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Cream rises to the top in well-crafted drama

With its issue-oriented subject matter _ racism and political correctness _ and its cast of campus types, Spinning Into Butter is a play that could curdle into polemic in the wrong hands.At American Stage, it stays fresh. A crisp, energized production directed by Brenda Sparks makes the most of the edgy humor in Rebecca Gilman's play and of the talents of a well-chosen cast.

Set at a small liberal arts college in not-exactly-diverse Vermont, the play focuses on Sarah Daniels, the dean of students, who struggles to deal with escalating anonymous threats against one of the few black students on campus. Sarah must cope with the self-involved responses of other administrators and faculty members, the complicated reactions of the students and her own carefully repressed fears.

Julie Rowe, last seen at American Stage as Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten, is terrific as Sarah, conveying her intelligence and assurance on the job as well as her personal fragility and self-doubt. Rowe wields Sarah's sharp sense of humor with fine timing, persuading us that this is a woman who can hold her own against a room full of people who make their living lecturing. And she keeps Sarah's most revealing scene unsettling rather than melodramatic, which is appropriate for a woman who doesn't believe in easy epiphanies: "You don't become a better person overnight."

Sarah's colleagues could devolve into stereotypes, but they are lively and believable. Brian Shea is convincing as Ross, the art history professor who romances and dumps and keeps returning to Sarah. He nails Ross' callow, self-important side, but he also gets across the bright, genuinely concerned man underneath.

Michael Dayton and Hersha Parady make a great pair of pompous, bullying deans, right down to Dayton's plummy voice and Parady's mother-hen-with-teeth manner. As the campus security guard, Michael Crockett has an understated, commonsense air that contrasts with all the politically correct pontificating going on around him.

As a student whom Sarah offends despite her best intentions, Todd Bazzini works up a righteous anger. And Scott Wooten plays a kid who's looking to pad his resume with a nice mix of gee-whiz and Gollum.

Abigail Hart-Gray's simple set makes effective use of clear moving panels to alternately separate the audience from Sarah's situation and draw them into it. Dawn Krumvieda's handsome lighting design evokes a traditional college campus with color and shadow. Lora LaVon's costume design is letter perfect, from Sarah's no-nonsense suits to Ross' aggressively retro sweaters and the dueling deans' tweeds and capes.

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