Thomas Gibbons’s engrossing play, based on a true story, looks at how a battle between art-world conservatism and innovation gets fought when the go-getter, an ambitious new museum director, is black. At the center of this first-rate production from director Lisa Portes and her cast is the struggle to distinguish covert racism from simple reluctance to change–and the larger issue of whether the difference matters. Former Chicago actor Harry J. Lennix, now best known for such films as The Human Stain and Ray, gives the new-broom character such authority that Gibbons’s failure to penetrate the thicket of the man’s motives almost doesn’t matter. Lennix’s nearly unshakable false bonhomie meets its match in Lawrence MacGowan’s finely calibrated display of deterioration as the defender of the faith: MacGowan captures every nuance of a privileged person’s eagerness to assume the mantle of victimhood. Linda Buchanan’s spare set, which slides from gallery to office to apartment to street on casters, conveys the fluidity of the situation while Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting design represents the contested works with gorgeously blurry projections that embody the debate about what constitutes “art.” All this evenhandedness is precisely what the play requires–but Gibbons achieves rhetorical balance by keeping the characters at a frustrating remove: we wind up feeling strongly about the topic rather than the people. Still, not every script has to wrench the guts, especially since there’s plenty of emotional truth on our stages and not enough politics. Northlight deserved the standing ovation it got if only for noticing the elephant of race in the middle of our national room. Through 3/6: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 1 and 8 PM, Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 PM. Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300. $32-$48.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.