Chester’s “The Niceties” is Essential Viewing This Summer

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There are some plays that are so trenchantly prescient, so eerily accurate and convincing they seem to have called forth changes in society, years after they were written and performed. “The Niceties” by Eleanor Burgess written in 2015 and set in 2016 (Obama’s last year) is such a play. It is a compelling confrontation in the halls of academia which will anger, challenge and break your heart. Chester Theatre Company has chosen it as its second play, the white hot center of its “road season,” performed in a tent at Hancock Shaker Village.

It is set in an unnamed university in Connecticut where a history professor, Janine, is collegially sharing office hours with her student Zoe in a well-appointed room designed by Juliana von Haubrich. The set is all the more effective being on a different angle from Chester’s last play “Title and Deed.” As the play opens, they enter the office laughing and there’s helpful advice on grammar and punctuation. Janine’s course is on the American Revolution and her reverence for the founding fathers is evidenced by her Washington portrait on her bookcase.

Photo by Elizabeth Solaka

An early indication of the fault line between the two is when Andrea Gallo’s Janine swoons with the imagined thrill of being in the same room as Washington and asks her student wouldn’t she feel the same. Stephanie Everett as Zoe flinches and quickly responds with an emphatic “no,” knowing if she were in the same room as George Washington, she would be enslaved. Another is when Janine crassly jokes that “digital natives” could be renamed “technological savages.”

From such niceties, the play has drawn its battle lines. Zoe’s paper is about how slavery prevented America from having a radical revolution and Janine’s whole class and scholarship is founded on the genius of American democracy and how our revolution succeeded where radical revolutions elsewhere, Iran and Haiti for example, failed. Janine responds “I understand your work perfectly and it’s flawed work and it won’t get an A.” You can question whether a radical revolution was necessary after witnessing what the country has gone through since in race relations.

Photo by Elizabeth Solaka

The performances are extraordinary, all the more so for being done in coats and sweaters (attractive, character appropriate costumes by Charles Schoonmaker) under a tent with horse flies dive bombing when the sun goes down late in the show. Burgess has done a great job imbuing both characters with a multi-faceted humanity and we are very lucky to have these two actors playing this piece meticulously directed by Christina Franklin. Andrea Gallo gives us a terrifically detailed portrait of Janine. She can be generous, wounded and imperious. She has a perfect pedant’s approach but I imagine she would be a great teacher as long as you agree with her. Her qualifications as an outsider are also revealed to ingratiate and advance her cause.

Stephanie Everett as Zoe gets so far into you that I imagined her texts that she is caught sending while waiting for her professor to finish one long winded story. The eagerness to listen and learn displayed in the opening beats in the play grow into a comfort as she throws her legs over the arm of the office lounge chair which descends into scorched earth when she has had enough. It is a stunningly beautiful performance that wins many converts to her cause.

Photos by Elizabeth Solaka

The play is very balanced and engaging in its arguments and can always make you see both sides of the story…sometimes at the same time. You might wince or gasp but I never questioned the possibility of these characters acting this way or more importantly, imagined myself acting similarly in these situations. Perhaps due somewhat to the discomfort of the performance space (seating, heat & bugs), I lost patience with the second scene not long after it started. I suspect it’s a weakness of the play but it could also be attributed to the powerfully etched performances that I had a hard time seeing a road to compromise between these two proposed by this scene.

This is the play I imagined through a year and a half of quarantine that I wanted to see when we re-emerged into the world. It might be a little square with its campus setting and straightforward Shavian debate but it’s got guts and urgency. A brilliant, forcefully engaged, compelling story about how impossible it seems to get along right now and how urgently important it is we need to keep trying. Make plans next weekend to catch the best production of the summer so far.

Through July 25th

Tickets available: chestertheatre.org

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