Reviewed by Judy Richter
The opening monologue in Thomas Gibbons' "Permanent Collection" sets the tone for what's to come, even though the audience doesn't know that yet. In the outstanding production directed by Robin Stanton for Aurora Theatre Company, Sterling North, played by L. Peter Callender, describes the start of his first day in his new job as director of the Morris Foundation and art museum in an upscale suburb of Philadelphia. Driving his Jaguar, the nattily dressed Sterling, who was a telecom executive, is stopped by a police officer even though he has violated no traffic laws. The cop wants to know if Sterling owns the car, then asks where he's going. The problem? Sterling is black, the cop white. Racism has reared its ugly head.
The rest of the day goes better as Sterling meets Ella Franklin (Margarette Robinson), who was assistant to the museum's late founder for 26 years. He also meets Paul Barrow (Tim Kniffin), the longtime director of education, who is white. All is cordial at first, but the first signs of conflict appear when Sterling replaces Ella, who is black, with his own assistant, Kanika Weaver (Karen Aldridge), who also is black. Ella stays on in another position, however.
Alfred Morris, who founded the museum, was an eccentric but discerning art collector. He amassed an important collection of artwork, most of it by the leading Impressionists, and hung it in a way that was unconventional but that reflected the influences one artist may have had on another. His collection also included some rare African works, only a few of which are on display. The rest are in storage. (Morris, played by Robert Hamm, is a character in the play but appears to the audience only.) When Sterling says he wants to display eight of the African works in storage, Paul, who is both knowledgeable and passionate about the collection, objects to the plan, noting that Morris' will stipulated that nothing was to be changed.
The tension rises, and soon Sterling accuses Paul of being racist. Gillian Crane (Melissa Gray), a white newspaper reporter, gets involved and uses the racist charge in one of her stories. The conflict escalates even more, resulting in pickets outside the foundation, lawsuits and resignations.
What's so intriguing about this play is that each of the two antagonists -- Sterling and Paul -- eloquently and cogently states his views, swinging audience sympathies from one to the other. Kanika tries to smooth things over, but she, too, gets caught up. Gillian, whose reports helped to kindle the conflict, declares her objectivity as a reporter, but she's not above capitalizing on the more sensational aspects of the situation. One also has to question her basic reporting skills, for when Sterling tells her what tribes some of the African works may have come from, she doesn't ask him how to spell the names -- a cardinal sin for journalists.
Richard Olmsted has designed the fluid set with art on all walls and a turntable to switch effortlessly from the main gallery to Sterling's office. The lighting is by Jon Retsky, the costumes by Rebecca Ann Valentino. The sound by Chris Houston includes a mix of classical and African music along with spirituals sung by the Oakland Youth Chorus.
The cast is uniformly excellent with each actor creating a believable character. Callender, Kniffin and Aldridge in particular express their characters' deeply held views convincingly and persuasively. Based on the true story of conflict over the late Albert C. Barnes' collection and foundation in Philadelphia, "Permanent Collection" is a play that stimulates thought and lays bare racial issues that still simmer in American society.