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Sunday, April 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Mostly Cloudy


Permanent Collection: When art attacks
A museum implodes

Sims and Slater play racial politics.
Sims and Slater play racial politics.
Credit:Brent Nicastro
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Is there a subject that vexes the American social and political spirit more than race? Is there any aspect of American culture that has not been affected by that seemingly intractable issue? And is there any dialogue that does not exacerbate the situation, even as it attempts to mollify it? These are some of the contentious questions addressed in the Madison Repertory Theatre's Permanent Collection, by Philadelphia playwright Thomas Gibbons.

Sterling North (Patrick Sims) is a successful African American businessman who takes over the Morris Foundation, a small but prestigious private art museum located in a white suburb of an unnamed Northeastern city. (The play is loosely based on true events that occurred in the playwright's hometown.) His presence is an immediate challenge to the long-serving (white) head of the museum's education department (Eric Slater).

When North discovers a trove of African art treasures stored ignominiously in a basement, he makes it his mission to place some of them amidst the European Impressionist masterpieces for which the museum is renowned. What follows from this apparently simple intent is a painful unraveling of a quartet of lives.

The script sometimes becomes too much of a verbal boxing match, each participant feinting and jabbing, scoring points and absorbing body blows. But there is humor to salve the bruises, and the performances rise above the occasionally preachy material. Sims is a firebrand, his barely contained humiliation flying off him in bright angry sparks. He is beautifully counterbalanced by Slater, whose bewilderment and frustration ignite a terrible conflagration.

Trapped between the two antagonists is Kanika Weaver, played compellingly by Letecia Moore. She delivers a vivid performance that grows in strength and complexity as the play progresses.

As a meddling journalist Karen Moeller solidifies the low opinion many people have of the Fourth Estate, and Barry Abrams, as the deceased founder of the museum, appears like a poltergeist to comment mischievously on the course of events.

Richard Corley's efficient direction springs no surprises, but the production is greatly enhanced by the music and sound design of Joe Cerqua. Scenic designer Joseph Varga provides an ingeniously minimalist set composed of empty picture frames, inviting the audience to project their own imagination into the proceedings.

There are no easy resolutions in the play, and no one survives with dignity intact. But the subject is treated with integrity and an honest sense of inquiry. Can we really ask for more?

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