Every good set design is a piece of art. However, when the subject of the play is art, a set designer faces the challenge of keeping the focus on the show and not on the onstage art. Thomas Gibbons' 2003 play Permanent Collection has presented that challenge to a growing number of set designers. The latest is Maryland-based Tony Cisek, who rejoins veteran director Timothy Douglas for what must be their twentieth collaboration, a new production of the play for Bethesda, Maryland's Round House Theatre.

Permanent Collection takes place in an art gallery, a museum endowed to exhibit a collection of works by such luminaries as Cezanne and Matisse, as a new director takes over and wants to make changes in the display. The battles rage between the new director, who is an African-American interested in giving more space to the collection's items of African art, and the education director of the foundation, who wants the limits incorporated in the original endowment to be observed.

Cisek and Douglas sat down to discuss an approach to designing the show, but they have worked together so many times that, as Cisek says, "not so many words are necessary." He adds that "This particular design came rather easily ... which is not always the case." Cisek had not seen a production of the play before, but after reading the script a few times, he did a good deal of research into the famous Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia where the dispute over the endowment's restrictions on changing displays triggered Gibbons' decision to write the play.

Cisek and Douglas saw the interrelationship of art and race in the script as establishing the visual approach they'd need. "There are references in the text to how a non-white person feels when entering a gallery which is, as the script says, 'filled with pictures of naked white women.'" That led to the selection of Renoir's Reclining Nude 1902 as one of the two dominant images for the set. The other, because of all the references to Cézanne, is one of his many paintings of Mount St. Victoire.

The images are painted on wall-sized panels of scrim with a number of picture frames arrayed over them. "All the frames are actually light boxes," Cisek says. "The art on the wall behind them sort of disappears at times during the play, and that particular part of the painted background goes white." Cisek spoke with us during load in at the Round House, noting that the ability of the light boxes to glow white is particularly important when the ghost of the museum's benefactor enters the action. "When he speaks, portions of the collection glow with his spirit."

Cisek explains that isn't specific about the gallery layout. "Several references in the dialog deal with specific pieces [of art] or specific artists, and there is discussion of the arrangements, how their juxtapositions are interrelated, and how Matisse's elongated figures influenced Picasso's, etc.," he says.

There are only four items that aren't paintings: the four pieces of African art that had been included in the museum's original display. "They are spelled out pretty specifically in the script, so we knew what styles we needed," Cisek says. "Two are reliquaries of the Kota people of Gabon, and two are masks of the Bamana. We bought the two masks and one reliquary as well as a small replacement sculpture for a few hundred dollars. We rented the other reliquary from one of the theatre's supporters who is a collector."

The task of translating Cisek's design and set model into full size fell to Round House's scenic charge, Jenny Cockerham. For the two wall-sized panels, she created a grid over Cisek's 1/2"-scale rendering and transferred each square of the grid freehand onto scrim for a 12' high by 18 ½'- long Cezanne and a 16' tall by 32' long Renoir. "This was the first time I have had to do an image—at least a well known one—and it was a great feeling when one of our board members walked into the theatre, saw the set, and said, 'That's a Cezanne!' I thought, 'Thank God!'" says Cockerham.

For the 40-odd picture frames, the entire theatre company staff was enlisted to scour their flea markets and yard sales to find frames that might work—never mind the art that might or might not be in them when they found them. Cockerham explains the process: "We took pictures of each and gave them to Tony with their measurements, and he arranged the distribution. Then we cleaned up the frames and painted them before mounting them on the set."

The Round House production of Permanent Collection runs through February 21.