As anyone who saw Gibbons' earlier drama Bee-luther-hatchee at the Rep four years ago will recall, he is a substantive playwright who is excited by the collision of ideas. There are moments when listening to so much stage prose about race and identity can be an almost giddy experience.
Permanent Collection was inspired by real events that have nearly engulfed the prestigious Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. In the play a progressive yet cranky art collector (Kevin Beyer, whose vulpine character returns from the dead to share amusing anecdotes) has inexplicably bequeathed control of his foundation to a black university, which in turn has hired North to run the place. North promptly upsets the status quo by arriving with his own assistant (the persuasively vivacious Kiné Brown). But that's peanuts compared to North's next announcement: He intends to display some primitive African works that are languishing in storage — a move that will entail altering the permanent exhibits of Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse.
This peremptory decision is challenged by Paul Barrow (John Pierson, sincere and engaging), the museum's workaholic curator. Barrow should be our hero, for he represents the artist bullied by the bureaucrat. But he also personifies the staid past. Perhaps it is time for a change. Were not the first impressionists scorned in their day? Who first displayed their canvases? And are not these former radicals now mere fodder for a thriving cottage industry of coffee mugs and tote bags?
Permanent Collection and Bee-luther-hatchee follow exactly the same trajectory: Act One is setup; Act Two is discourse. The moment the second act begins with Paul all-too-neatly echoing Sterling by saying, "Put yourself in my place," we know that Barrow is the playwright's pawn. Eventually these actors more resemble members of a debate team than independent characters. And it's because there's so much here to chew on here that you might find yourself wishing Gibbons had presented his ideas in a more credible plot. Much of the conflict is initiated by a meddling journalist (Donna M. Parrone). It defies credulity to think that either man would allow himself to be manipulated in such an obvious manner.
But we don't attend a Gibbons play for plot; we go to be provoked. Anyone willing to stay focused on the issues will find much here to ponder. Director Bill Grivna has given Permanent Collection a sleek, crisp production that is enhanced by Robin Weatherall's visual sound design and Daniel Lanier's elusive scenic design made up of empty picture frames waiting to be filled with images from our own imagination. Museum curator Barrow reminds us that the impressionists "taught us how to see in a new way." There's a sense here that this playwright's ambitions are no less lofty: Gibbons would like his audiences to listen in a new way. This spare, thoughtful production comes close to allowing that to happen.