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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection Will Make You Think

Also see Richard's reviews of Vanities, Barry Lloyd and The Fabulous Adventures of Captain Queer

Permanent Collection
Peter Callender and Tim Kniffin
Thomas Gibbons' robust drama Permanent Collection is playing at the Aurora Theatre through July 23rd. The confrontational play is an examination of racial politics in America and is the kind of play that will have you thinking about the issues of race even after you have left the theatre.

Gibbons is a noted Irish-American playwright from Philadelphia who originally wrote the play for the Baltimore Center Stage's 2003-2004 "First Look" reading series. Since that time, this powerful drama has played in many regional theatres, including the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles earlier this year. Most plays by this Philadelphia-based playwright deal with race and racism and how they shape our cultural attitudes. His plays usually depict in depth black characters as well as white. This play is no exception.

Permanent Collection is inspired by the actual events surrounding the litigious warfare that plagued the Barnes Foundation located outside of Philadelphia and founded by the eccentric Alfred Barnes. He was a complex, intolerant idealist who created exhibits that showed the connectivity between different artists and art styles.

Gibbons' compelling drama takes place an art museum called the Morris Foundation art gallery. Sterling North (L. Peter Callender), a successful African-American businessman, has been appointed to head the museum founded by the late Alfred Morris (Robert Hamm), who appears as a ghost. There are wonderful paintings by Cezanne and Picasso along with African masks adorning the walls of the museum. Morris, who enjoyed exerting control of his collection, has left the art collection to a black university nearby with a proviso that states nothing in the galleries will be changed one inch.

Sterling discovers eight very extraordinary African pieces in the basement storage and he wants to place them upstairs in the gallery where they will be appreciated. This suggestion immediately causes a conflict with his assistant, the long time white education director Paul Barrow (Tim Kniffin), a staunch defender of the Morris will.

Race becomes the issue between the two as the hyper-aware Sterling insists that the African art is just as important as the Caucasian artists' works on display. The playwright shows more sympathy for the cause of Sterling's position since the play opens with a long monologue about being pulled over by a white policeman just for driving his Jaguar. Sterling is now consciously distrustful of whites and he interprets Paul's opposition as potentially racist in nature.

Paul leads a group of protesters outside the gallery who want to keep the museum exactly like it is. Snoopy reporter Gillian Crane (Melissa Grey) fans the tension between the two when she interviews Sterling about the changes he wants to make in the museum. Sterling angrily compares the demonstrators to members of the KKK. Paul institutes a legal action of character assassination against Sterling for these remarks. Both men are too quick to judge and very quick to anger; no compromise can be effective between them.

The drama of over two hours rehashes the standoff with the two protagonists as they confront each other with their own philosophies of white vs. black art. The confrontation between the two almost bankrupts the museum. The debates, although somewhat didactic, are presented masterfully and the phrase "put yourself in my place" rings true about the subtleties of racism, classification and awareness. You are bound to leave the theatre aware of something that is completely unanswerable.

L. Peter Callender (Nicholas Nickleby, The Importance of Being Earnest at Cal Shakes last season) as Sterling and Tim Kniffin (Seattle actor recently in The Underpants at 6th Street Theatre) as Paul give electrifying performances. Callender is an exceptionally powerful stage performer who very effectively conveys the character's stylish elegance which is directly related to his virtuous anger.

Tim Kniffin gives a strong performance defending Paul's position to the world of art. He is alternately jovial and condescending at the beginning but becomes brilliant in his own righteous anger when the flying war of words starts. Robert Hamm (I Hate Hamlet and Oleanna) plays the curmudgeonly Dr. Morris to the hilt as he walks about the stage telling his vision of art in the museum. Melissa Grey (Seattle actress who has appeared in many Intiman and ACT Seattle plays) makes conceivable the reporter's subtle ability to get though the defenses of both men.

Karen Alridge (International tour of Peter Brook's Le Costume) is engaging as Sterling's eager young black assistant, the youthful next generation member who wishes to get on with life in an integrated society. She is the voice of reason in the confrontation between the two strong minded protagonists when she says "Neither of you listen to each other." She hopes one day that the fears between black and white societies will vanish. Margarette Robinson (Crowns) is effective as the African-American executive assistant and then as a woman who comes into her own as result of the legal battle.

Robin Stanton has helmed this piece with split second timing that is near perfect, and the presence of the specter of Alfred Morris is beautifully accomplished to keep this provocative drama moving at a fast rate of speed. Robert Olmster's set design is excellent, with paintings of the French school of art hanging over the three-sided stage and a series of paintings and African masks hanging on the solid back wall. One of the paintings that features prominently in the opening scene, a wonderful Renoir, hangs over the center section of the three side theatre and as a result only those sitting on the side sections can see it.

Permanent Collection runs through July 23rd at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets please call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Their next production will be Oscar Wilde's Salome opening on August 25 and running through October 1.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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