Stage Names: Portland Stage tackles race and more in ‘The Niceties’

Susan Knight and Alexis Green in Portland Stage’s production of “The Niceties,” by Eleanor Burgess and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. (click to enlarge; photo by Aaron Flacke)

PORTLAND – When I was a young boy, I used to spend my summers in a remote Greek farming village, helping my great aunt Nike harvest acres of vegetable crops and groves of olive trees.

At night, exhausted, I slept under the stars on a blanket-covered flat stand on her front porch. During my first year there, Aunt Nike laughed when she saw me in the dark with a can of insecticide and a fly swatter, spraying and flailing away every time I heard the annoying buzz of mosquitoes.

In short order, Aunt Nike, half blind and standing at a sinewy and weatherbeaten 4′ 10″, showed me how to draw and trap dive-bombing pests away from my bed by using a lit candle centered in a plate of raw honey.

I recalled this back-to-basics solution throughout my matinee attendance at Portland Stage’s “The Niceties,” by Eleanor Burgess–a new play directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian–and wondered if maybe all of us couldn’t benefit from it.

Ms. Burgess embarks on a quest to tell us the story of race today and the very real disconnect in view points between those who as a group seem to benefit more from society’s ways and structure, and those who don’t.

The story finds us in March through May of 2016, full primary election season, where at an elite university in the Northeast, Prof. Janine Bosko (Susan Knight), a white historian, is reviewing a research paper on slavery during the Revolutionary War, written by her black student, Zoe Reed, (Alexis Green).

The session floats through the usual niceties of academia office hours, until it doesn’t, and then sinks into a more visceral morass that sinks to just about every dark place it could on the matter of race in America–but also, very tellingly, on human nature.

Billed in publicity materials as “a hard-hitting examination of race in modern academia, liberal-infighting, identity politics, social justice, PC-culture, and much more,” the play echoes David Mamet’s 1992 “Oleanna,”  which dealt with a different issue: the sexual harassment flavor-of-the-times (seasoned by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation during the justice’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings).

As such, looking into the “much more” reveals a take on the cycle of life that Ms. Burgess may or may not have intended.

Susan Knight and Alexis Green in Portland Stage’s production of “The Niceties,” by Eleanor Burgess and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. (click to enlarge; photo by Aaron Flacke)

As far as the acting goes, Green and Knight were outstanding. The former perfectly grasped the devil-may-care impetuous yet passionate considerations of youth while the latter nearly convinced us she very well could be an academic, complete with learnedness and pomposity.

Green went headfirst into a dive of “the cause” while Knight aptly showed us that when all is said and done, second and third order effects often are only foreseen, or even fully appreciated, by those more life-seasoned.

This was just a magnificent effort by both actors to demarcate the dichotomy which is “The Niceties.”

Judy Gailen’s set was warm, welcoming, and its vibe could have been found in the offices of senior academics nationwide. It was well complemented by Sadah Espii Proctor’s apt sound design, and Devorah Kengmana’s well timed lights.

The costumes of Anna Grywalski also nicely–and realistically–added to the great divide. Shane Van Vliet is well known at Portland Stage for her competent stage managing, and this play was no different.

“The Niceties” ran for 2 hours, which included a 15 minute intermission.

Susan Knight and Alexis Green in Portland Stage’s production of “The Niceties,” by Eleanor Burgess and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. (click to enlarge; photo by Aaron Flacke)

The play has a short run, so for my money, as many people as possible should go see it, for three reasons:

First, the acting is top shelf.

I felt physically exhausted watching the depth of passion that both Ms. Green and Ms. Knight put into their roles. If there is ever one thing that has become a hallmark at Portland Stage under the aegis of artistic and executive director Anita Stewart, it’s the superior quality of actors cast for its productions.

Director Sandberg-Zakian also deserves to take a bow for having her players peaking once the show opened.

Next, whatever Ms. Burgess’ thematic intent was, the story spoke so much to generational dynamics–for those who were tuned in– possibly even more so than it did to matters of race and other hot-button topics du jour.

Both coming of age and reflective hindsight were the two human qualities on display in “The Niceties” two characters, and even though polar opposites on their own, together they created a synergy from which everyone present could benefit.

Finally, and most importantly, was choice.

This story plays very well in the deep-blue echo chamber of Portland, Maine; how well it would fare in more red-hued fortresses “from away” is certainly worth pondering. The shots taken at the current president/then candidate-presumptive nominee are almost predictable, and 16 months into his administration, very nearly tired, and distracting from the matter at hand.

As such, and keeping in mind that both characters in the play are politically from the left, people should see Burgess’ opus first hand to decide what works best for their own lives: antagonism and militarism, compromise and moderation, or perhaps a combination.

All are valid approaches to questions of race in this country, where much work still needs to be done, but progress, however incremental, continues to be made.

Still, throughout the production, I couldn’t help thinking back to my boyhood summers.

There, a strong, proud, and stubborn little 80-year old Greek woman who had endured and survived a brutal Nazi occupation and two savage civil wars on her village’s soil, never backed down from anyone her entire life.

But she paused for a moment to show her nephew that there’s always another way: it was far easier to catch all those blood suckers with honey and some light, rather than fighting them endlessly in the dark.

“The Niceties” runs through April 22 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit:

Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).

Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.

Subscribe to From The Stacks at the bottom left of this page, or follow Telly on Twitter: @TellyHalkias

Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.