The first play by Philadelphia playwright Thomas Gibbons to make it to Boston was his curiously named "Bee-Luther-Hatchee", presented by Zeitgeist Theatre two seasons ago at the BCA. A moderate critical success, an effective production failed to draw audiences. "Permanent Collection", which premiered in Philadelphia in fall 2003, is Gibbons' latest work exploring racial issues in contemporary society. He first tackled this subject a decade ago in his hometown in a docudrama based on the disastrous neighborhood fire which followed the police raid on MOVE headquarters. Central to both recent scripts is the confluence of race and art, and whether any part of society has proprietary rights to their particular history. There's also much more considerations of the ramifications of power in this play.
"Permanent Collection", like much of this author's work is based on a real situation, in this case, the unique Barnes' Collection, headquartered in a Philadelphia suburb. Since the death of its eccentric founder, the museum has become embroiled in several high-profile suits alleging racism. The particulars of these problems, which had a large NIMBY element, do not figure in the play. Rather, the central conflict involves a longtime administrator, who is white, committed to following the founder's wishes concerning the art displayed, and a new black director, who wants to exhibit a small part of the large African holdings now in storage. The conflict escalates into charges of racism on both their parts
The long time staffer, Paul Barrow, is played by Benjamin Evett,last seen at the New Rep in last fall's world premiere of Joyce Van Dyke's "A Girl's War", a excellent script which deserves further attention in these times. Evett, who appeared in over 50 shows at the ART, cut short his appearance in the Actors' Shakespeare Project production of "Richard III", which he also directed, to appear in this play. The black businessman, Sterling North, new to the foundation, is played by Clark Jackson, who received a Drama Desk award for his role in "Cobb" in NYC. These two seasoned actors form a strong center for the complex argument between aesthetics and social justice. At the core of this conflict is an iconoclastic collector of impressionist art, Dr. Alfred Morris, played by by veteran local actor, Paul D. Farwell. Morris created this art foundation to preserve his considerable personal collection of Impressionist painting and African artifacts which partially inspired them. Flashback monologues and his silent "ghostly" presence behind some scenes provide both humor and a palpable sense of history during the play.
The three women in the piece have a slightly more practical view of the situation, though no overall solution. Sylvia Anne Soares, who appeared earlier in the season in Nora Theatre's "Antigone" as Tiresias, is Ella Franklin, a long time functionary at the Morris Foundation. Her character is quickly sidelined, only to reappear in what amounts to the epilogue. Tracy Oliverio plays Gillian Crane, the suburban reporter of a major newspaper, whose meddlesome articles contribute to the crisis, all in the name of news. This potential critique is never fully explored. Giselle Jones, last seen at the New Rep in John Henry Redwood's "No..." play, is young Kanika Weaver, the businessman's personal assistant brought in from his previous job as Vice President for Community Affairs at a large firm. This part could represent a more youthful attitude towards the whole situation but is ultimately frustrated as are all the characters, except for the late Dr. Morris.
Gibbons has once again approached the problem of race relations in our complex society in a realistic fashion, though some of his plot twists are a bit simplistic. He's created potentially interesting characters and given them thought-provoking speeches. But he's merely sketched in their backgrounds so that his creations tend to slip into stereotype, often at the moment when the argument onstage needs real people to support it. This fine cast does a good job of creating distinctive performances under the sure direction of Adam Zahler, whose production last season of Redwood's play and the school tour of "To Kill a Mockingbird" were equally as successful. The actors might do even better if the playwright had spent as much time on character detail as playing changes on the important ideas being discussed. The drama itself would be more satisfying if at least among them had hope for change in the future. But compared to many current navel-gazing scripts, "Permanent Collection" will bear repeating.
The set by Anita Fuchs, executed again by Wooden Kiwi, is functional and uncluttered, featuring black and white back panels suggesting impressionist painting which form the core of the Foundation's collection. The images chosen are adequate, but could relate better to the two poles of the conflict. Nancy Leary's costume designs given the actor's what they need to inhabit their roles. Christopher Ostrum's lighting is effective in defining various spaces on the open stage and separating Dr. Morris's ghostly presence from the action. As usual, Zahler's choice of background music is also effective. The New Rep held an official "ground breaking" last week for the interior construction on their new theatre space at the Arsenal Art Center in Watertown. They have hopes of ending this season with a production of "Into the Woods" there in May 2005, which could be a highlight of the whole season.
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