Most productions aren’t as good the second time around, but director Seth Rozin’s staging of the marvelous drama Permanent Collection is even more enjoyable than when it debuted a decade ago. The biggest selling production in InterAct Theatre Company’s 25-year history, Collection is inspired by events connected to the direction of the Barnes Foundation, which playwright Thomas Gibbons’ uses to examine myriad issues, including the very touchy subject of race.
The action is set almost entirely at the suburban mansion that houses the jaw-dropping collection of art assembled by the deceased collector Dr. Morris (Tom McCarthy). Cantankerous and opinionated, Dr. Morris—clearly modeled after the Barnes Foundation’s founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes—has a fondness for great art and a general disdain for most art institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which, at one point, is referred to as a den of prostitution for its alleged emphasis on commerce rather than art). In his will, Dr. Morris puts the priceless art collection in the hands of a predominantly African-American college. The institution puts one of its trustees in charge of guiding the foundation, a sharp-dressed businessman with the impressive name of Sterling North (Frank X).
Upon his arrival, North is given a tour of the museum by Paul Barrow (Tim Moyer), its longtime education director. However, while its walls are crammed with priceless works from Monet, Cezanne, Renoir and other masters, a number of the museum’s works tucked away in storage are the ones that capture North’s attention. There, in the building’s basement, he discovers superb pieces from Africa, and, unlike the European masterpieces on display upstairs, the names of the artists who created them are unknown. When North proposes displaying a few of the African works alongside the masterpieces in the gallery, Barrow balks, arguing that any alterations would disrupt “the order” of the collection; in his will, Dr. Morris insisted the paintings’ placement remain unaltered. North nonetheless considers the lack of African art on display to be a product of racism and takes legal action to have the will changed. When Barrow objects, North accuses him of being a racist, an accusation that Barrow quickly and angrily denies. “The issue is not race; the issue is art,” Barrow replies. To North, however, everything is about race.
What follows is a fascinating examination of perception or, as one character puts it, “what we see and how we see.” To Barrow, the collection of fabulous art has the ability “to make you a better person,” while to North, the works simply display another example of discrimination in which white artists are celebrated, and the genius of black artists is exiled to the basement storage facility, remaining unseen by the public.
Impeccably directed by Rozin and featuring a spectacularly nuanced and thoughtful performance by Frank X, Permanent Collection is also buoyed by strong performances from Moyer, Maureen Torsney-Weir as a local reporter and Lynnette R. Freeman, who is terrific as North’s young assistant. In addition, Nick Embree’s set is effective in its recreation of the main room at the Barnes Museum’s old home in Merion, PA—his design even includes copies of the paintings that adorn the walls—and Peter Whinnery’s evocative lighting brings the paintings to life in creative fashion.
Gibbons once remarked that Permanent Collection asks, “Who decides what hangs on a museum wall, and on what basis do they make their decision?” That, however, is only part of the debate. Perhaps more importantly, the play reveals our inability to discuss race honestly and openly, exploring the upheaval that occurs when the forces of change go toe-to-toe with guardians of the status quo.
Through May 5. $28-$35. The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. 215.568.8079. interacttheatre.org