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Permanent Collection

By Thomas Gibbons

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 3/23/2005

Permanent Collection

At Center Stage through April 10

Watching Permanent Collection is a lot like listening to the self-important chatter on public radio—especially if you have trouble keeping your eyes open during the play.

It didn’t have to be this way. Playwright Thomas Gibbons had all the ingredients for seriously good theater: a historical controversy, provocative issues (race, art, class), and the resources of Center Stage, which has mounted a typically polished production. But Gibbons has failed to develop—or even address, really—the personal relationships between his characters, leaving them with little more to do than make speeches at each other. That’s not drama, it’s a debating society.

When iconoclast art collector Alfred Morris dies, he leaves his museum and its priceless collection of impressionist treasures in the hands of a small historically black college. The new board passes over longtime museum staffer Paul Barrow (Thomas Hammond, pictured right) and appoints as director a successful black executive, Sterling North (Terry Alexander, left). A bitter feud erupts between them when North discovers a cache of valuable African art in the basement, and proposes that eight of the African pieces be added to the permanent collection—thereby challenging Morris’ will, which stipulates that the permanent collection never be altered. Barrow objects to North’s proposal, on the grounds that it besmirches the legacy of Morris (based on the eccentric Philadelphia art collector Albert Barnes). North in turn publicly assails Barrow’s objections as racist, which stains the white art historian’s reputation and sets him off on a legal crusade against North.

Good stuff, right? It would be, if Gibbons had contrived to make the conflict between these two men personal, rather than merely ideological. As it is, their quarrel is not really with each other, but with what the other represents. And that’s not very interesting to watch, no matter how impassioned their speeches or furrowed their brows. There are plenty of other missed opportunities for drama. Barrow develops a promising acquaintance with North’s young black assistant, Kanika Weaver (Quincy Bernstine), but they never develop feelings for one other, so we never care when the museum feud comes between them. Same goes for the roving reporter (Christina Rouner), who is interested solely in her scoop, not in the people behind it.

Director David Schweizer would have done better to instruct his actors to imbue their pious words with more humanity, as a counterbalance to the pomposity of the script. Instead, it appears that rehearsals were largely devoted to overenunciation lessons, which (while sorely needed by some of our local radio chatterboxes) only makes Gibbons’ characters sound about as lifelike as the art they argue about.

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