Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through Feb. 28
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Think of Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus” as a parable about racism and revenge rather than as a realistic social drama, and you’re more likely to appreciate the world premiere at Northlight Theatre.
Departing from the gentler tones of ”Stella and Lou” and “The Outgoing Tide” previously produced by the theater, the playwright sets up an explosive situation then shows us what happens when basically decent people are pushed to extremes. Needless to say, the violence and hypocrisy are far from pretty, and Graham has the guts to let his characters say things that are so politically incorrect, many people in the (mostly white) opening night audience gasped. He doesn’t offer any solutions to the problems he poses, either — just the imperative that something must be done.
Initially, however, it’s hard to know what Graham is up to. The play opens in the suburban Philadelphia backyard — or on the back patio; it’s hard to tell from the astroturf of John Culbert’s set — of an affectionate middle-age couple. Ray (Francis Guinan), the titular white guy, is a successful investment adviser and self-described “numbers man” who has made a good living helping rich people get richer but would gladly chuck it all, sell the house, and lead a simpler life. His wife, Roz (Mary Beth Fisher), is a dedicated inner-city teacher but no idealist; inured to limited resources and indignities like being called a “white bitch” daily, she’s pragmatic about what she can and cannot achieve but not willing to give up trying.
Ray and Roz are childless, but a neighbor, Christopher (Jordan Brown), has become their surrogate son. He’s trying to finish his Ph.D. and plans to write his dissertation on how the advertising industry prefers to depict African Americans as clean-cut CEO with Caucasian underlings in commercials, even though this scenario is rare in the real world. Christopher’s fiancé, then wife, Molly (Amanda Drinkall), works at a school, but unlike Roz’s, her charges are the children of privilege, and she parrots the liberal platitudes that reflect a lack of experience.
Roz doesn’t think much of Molly, and when the younger couple comes over, the conversation invariably turns to race and their clashing ideologies. So much so that were it not for Fisher’s convincing crankiness and BJ Jones’ careful direction, the women might come across as mouthpieces for opposing positions rather than real people. Possible reactions to Christopher’s dissertation also are debated.
Then Graham introduces another element. Alternating with the backyard gatherings are scenes of Ray riding a bus on Saturdays through the poor parts of town. He starts talking to his seat mate, Shatique (Patrese D. McClain), and we gradually learn that this young African American woman is studying to be a nurse while working as a patient aide, has sent her young son to live with his grandmother because her own apartment is in an unsafe neighborhood and takes the long bus ride every week to visit her brother in prison where he’s serving a life sentence without parole for murder. What we don’t know is why Ray is on the bus at all.
When we find out, confrontations that were racially tense to begin with —McClain has the wariness of someone who’s used to being regarded with suspicion down pat — become incendiary. Saying more would be a spoiler, but Ray has suffered a trauma that’s pushed him to the edge, and Shatique is the lynchpin of his plan for revenge, a plan that’s morally reprehensible in any number of ways.
Graham manipulates the time frame to keep us in the dark, a device that has the added effect of making Ray’s loss palpable. Guinan’s performance is compelling. Though he seemed a little uncomfortable as an affluent suburbanite, when he reveals his roots, they make perfect sense, and when he unleashes his fury, he’s truly frightening.
Still, “White Guy on the Bus” is as frustrating as it is thought-provoking. It takes a long time to get going, some of the arguments seem simplistic (focusing on race to the exclusion of other relevant factors), and the staging tends to be static, even clumsy at times. The topic is potent, especially nowadays, but the way Graham approaches it is too far-fetched to be believable, which is why I suggest viewing the play as a parable.