Wednesday, February 10, 2016


This excellent production by InterAct of Thomas Gibbons' 2003 "Permanent Collection" tells the story of a fabulous trove of art and the people entrusted with its care. Fascinating, says David Patrick Stearns.



By David Patrick Stearns

Upon encountering Thomas Gibbons' play Permanent Collection by InterAct Theatre Company, you're likely to think: "Didn't this play start here?" "Didn't we live this drama?" "Do we have to go through it again?"

The answers are yes, certainly, and indeed. The play premiered at InterAct in 2003 and went on to tell the world about the Barnes Foundation's agonized journey into the real world, focusing not on the move from Merion to Philadelphia but on the first stages of undoing Albert C. Barnes' wishes by Richard Glanton, the foundation's African American president in the 1990s. The main issues are overt and covert racism directed at the man enacting what Philadelphians hate most: change.

The twist in this new production is that director Seth Rozin, in collaboration with the playwright, sets the play in contemporary times. Newspapers are read on iPads, conversations are recorded on iPhones, and an African American U.S. president is referred to. Thus, the play's issues can't be viewed from a safe distance. And in the intimate confines of the Adrienne Theater, this play is, rightly, uncomfortable and provocative with zingers that crystalize rather than diminish the argument.

Plays can say things journalists can't, and from moment one, the racial issues are out in the open. While driving to his first day of work, Sterling North (the stage version of Glanton) is pulled over by a cop for DWB (driving while black), described in searing detail, dissecting the power dynamics between a police officer who believes the driver has stolen the Jaguar and a driver who has earned every bit of it the hard way.

Two hours and several fatal slips of the tongue later, the characters are suing or not speaking to one another - all of them "right" in their own ways - in a conflict revolving around a longtime education director who has devoted his life to the collection and the new director, who in so many ways reflects the renegade sensibility of the man who built the collection (named "Morris" here).

This is where the message gets even larger: Racism is portrayed as a means of inner isolation among individuals who judge and objectify those around them, taking little at face value. The final result is embittered aloneness - as embodied by Morris, who appears for delightfully whacked monologues, brilliantly played by Tom McCarthy at the outer edges of eccentricity.

The two leading actors have been with the play since 2003, and it shows in the best way. Frank X turns in a magnetic, bravura performance as the hyper-articulate Sterling while Tim Moyer traces the education director's progression from withdrawn art nerd to formidable foe. Nothing is tentative in this hair-trigger pas de deux that leaves lives ruined.

Supporting characters often have the best surprises, and are played by actors who always know what to reveal and what to hide. You never know whether Maureen Torsney-Weir, as a savvy reporter, is part of the problem or the solution. Karen Vicks' characterization never hints that the museum's most low-key employee is to become an instrument of change. As the faithful secretary, Lynnette R. Freeman is the Everyperson: She paves the way to the audience's disillusionment.

Only one problem: Morris (Barnes) is a pervasive stage presence. Is he a ghost? A flashback? Or simply lost?

Contact David Patrick Stearns at
Through May 5 at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. Tickets" $30-$35.
215-568-8077 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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