Francis Guinan and Patrese D. McClain star in “White Guy on the Bus” at Northlight Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It’s no surprise that a play called “White Guy on the Bus” is about racism.

The white guy in the title—a rich suburban financial wheeler-dealer named Ray—is the only white person on that bus. He sits down next to an African American woman named Shatique, who’s on her way to visit her brother in jail. Ray amiably strikes up a conversation with her, and then he keeps showing up on the same bus every week. Somehow, he always manages to get a seat next to Shatique and they continue their chat.

It doesn’t take long for Shatique (Patrese D. McClain) to wonder the same thing about Ray (Frances Guinan) that we’re asking ourselves in the audience: “You really got a Mercedes? Then why are you on this damn bus?”

Let’s not spoil the answer to that question, which comes halfway through this world premiere at Northlight Theatre, directed by BJ Jones. The revelation causes the ground to shift in playwright Bruce Graham’s drama.

Those bus rides are only one part of this play. They alternate with scenes taking place on Ray’s home turf in the suburbs. His wife, Roz (the fiercely blunt Mary Beth Fisher), is a teacher who works in an inner-city school. They hang out with a young couple, Christopher (Jordan Brown) and Molly (Amanda Drinkall), spending most of their time discussing their attitudes about race. Their conversation raises the question: Is anyone truly free from racial prejudice?

This is one of those plays so focused on a social issue that it neglects to show much of the regular life of its characters. What are these people like when they aren’t debating racism? Fisher and McClain persuasively play their roles with what feels like plainspoken honesty, but Guinan has trouble making his character believable. Guinan’s generally an outstanding actor and he’s as enjoyable to watch as usual, but he plays Ray as too much of a nice guy. And—slight spoiler alert—that’s not what Ray turns out to be.

“White Guy on the Bus” is a provocative and unsettling work of theater that will spark conversations, but unfortunately, it comes up a bit short on credibility.

 

White Guy on the Bus” continues through Feb. 28 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. For tickets and details, visit Northlight’s website or call 847-673-6300.

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