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‘White Guy on the Bus’ at Northlight both incendiary and belief-stretching

There are a few things you should know before reading any further.

First, Bruce Graham’s play “White Guy on the Bus,” now in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre under the take-no-prisoners direction of BJ Jones, is an altogether incendiary examination of race in this country. And Graham says things that many other playwrights would quickly self-censor.

Second, the crucial elements in its plot stretch belief far beyond the breaking point in far too many ways, which is a pity, because there is a thrilling honesty at work here on many levels.

Third, a spoiler alert is absolutely essential here. To reveal the play’s essential plot twists will eradicate the crucial element of surprise.

And finally, I left the theater wondering about whether “White Guy on the Bus” could be staged at a theater in a black neighborhood, and how the response to the play might be different from that at Northlight’s opening night, where the audience was overwhelmingly white.

So, you have been warned. Read on if you will.

‘WHITE GUY ON THE BUS’

Recommended

When: Through Feb. 28

Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Tickets: $25 – $78

Info: (847) 673-6300; northlight.org

Run time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission

Graham (author of “The Outgoing Tide” and “Stella & Lou”) has set his play in the Philadelphia area he knows best. It opens in the lavish suburban home of an affluent,  long-married and childless white couple who clearly still love each other. Both of them worked their way out of the working class many years earlier, but they are now at somewhat different points regarding work and lifestyle preferences.

Ray (Francis Guinan) is an investment banker who makes rich people richer, and he would happily leave his job and unload his upscale surroundings — vast garden, pool and all the rest. His wife, Roz (Mary Beth Fisher), is a still attractive and driven woman who teaches at an inner-city high school where she is routinely called “bitch,” a term she can almost laugh at. And in a uniformly fiery cast, Fisher, who has many of the best lines, is particularly brilliant in her caustic, no-holds-barred exposure of how political correctness can poison rather than ameliorate the racial divide.

Roz still wants to work, and attempt to make a difference in her students’ lives, but she harbors no illusions about the situation and is most definitely not a bleeding-heart liberal. In fact, her total lack of political correctness is beyond refreshing. She not only holds nothing back from Christopher (Jordan Brown), the adult son of neighbors who has been the couple’s “surrogate son” for years and is now working on a doctorate dissertation about images of African-American men in television advertising. But she takes particular delight in challenging Christopher’s fiance, Molly (Amanda Drinkall), a sheltered, suburban-bred woman who works as a guidance counselor at an elite prep school in the city, and spouts all the usual politically correct platitudes.

Francis Guinan (left) and Patrese D. McClain in Bruce Graham's play, "White Guy on the Bus" at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Francis Guinan (left) and Patrese D. McClain in Bruce Graham’s play “White Guy on the Bus” at Northlight Theatre. | Photo by Michael Brosilow

All this is simply the “prelude” to an act of violence that sets Ray on a most unusual (and far too theatrically rigged) mission that grows increasingly bizarre and violent as he begins to regularly ride a bus that takes him into the city’s most troubled neighborhood. It is on this bus that he meets and begins chatting up Shatique (Patrese D. McClain), a financially strapped young woman who lives in a dangerous area, commutes long hours to work and nursing school, and then spends her weekends visiting the 9-year-old son cared for by her mother in New Jersey, as well as the brother serving a life sentence in prison.

Ray builds a complete dossier on Shatique, and her circumstances just happen to fit the bill for his deal-with-the-devil plan. Frankly, I bought none of it (and doubted Shatique would engage with Ray for more than a single ride). But the interaction of these two provides the groundwork for the shattering second act that suggests how privilege and poverty, and matters of power and race, can become so combustible, igniting resentment,  fear, escalating violence and tragedy.

Credit goes to Graham for his sheer chutzpah. And you can bet there will be some mighty heated post-show discussions for this play.