PITTSFIELD — The stakes are high in Eleanor Burgess’ ironically titled “The Niceties,” which is being given a vigorous, if, unfortunately, unbalanced production by Chester Theatre Company at its COVID-necessitated 2021 summer home at Hancock Shaker Village.
“The Niceties” is set in the office of a distinguished professor of comparative revolutionary history at an elite liberal college somewhere in the Northeast. It is 2016. Donald J. Trump is referred to only as “the Republican nominee.” While Hillary Clinton never is mentioned by name either, the professor, Janine (Andrea Gallo), is anticipating that America is on the cusp of electing its first woman president.
Janine has in her office a bright, eager student, Zoe (Stephanie Everett), an intellectually energetic, academically high-achieving millennial who has come to discuss the draft of a paper she is working on for the professor. Zoe’s eyes are on the prize — a postgraduate fellowship that provides training in “community organizing, lobbying, communications.”
“Campus activism has taught me all the real skills I would actually need for the fellowship, but because our society buys into bulls--- credentialism and signs of elitism more than actual skill, I need a high GPA to get started on my life’s work,” Zoe explains. For that, she needs at least a B-plus for this paper.
Janine begins her critique by running down for Zoe areas that need work, change — grammar, style, color, flair, hard evidence to back up some of Zoe’s assertions. “... you can’t just type a couple words in a box and know everything there is to know; sometimes you really have to work to get at the truth,” Janine tells Zoe at one point.
There is more. Janine has a fundamental issue with the central premise of Zoe’s paper — that the American Revolution was dependent upon slavery for its success. At one point, Janine tells Zoe that she wants to encourage debate from her students, not mere acceptance of what she tells them. Janine will get all the debate she can handle when Zoe responds to Janine’s statement about her central thesis.
Systemic institutional racism in America becomes the flashpoint for a sweeping, intensely heated debate about white, and Black’ entitlement in our education system; about who gets to tell the story of America’s founding and the role of the nation’s Black minority within and without the fabric of our experiment with democracy; about what we have come to accept as truth when it comes to the narrative about the founding of America.
Unfortunately for Janine and for Zoe, what begins as a heated argument inside a professor’s office doesn’t stay within the professor’s office. The impact of a seemingly private debate winds up having devastating consequences on and beyond the college campus. And Janine and Zoe are in the direct line of fire.
Burgess, Everett, Gallo and their director, Christina Franklin, are clear in framing the issues that divide Janine and Zoe; less clear in establishing Janine and Zoe as fully dimensional characters rather than mouthpieces. Particularly in the first of the play’s two scenes, Franklin’s production squanders whatever momentum it gains.
There is a kind of arch sterility, a holding back in Gallo’s approach to Janine that feels more the product of technique than character. Gallo’s style lends an unfortunate imbalance onstage, especially when posed against Everett’s galvanic performance.
Clearly, Janine is up against it here. The published professor is respected widely not only within the college community, but also among policymakers in Washington, D.C., for whom she frequently has been a consultant. In the years she has been teaching, she has not questioned the assumptions that feed her view of the Founding Fathers, until now, when he is being challenged at every turn by a passionate young student who, as played by Everett, eventually erupts like a force of nature and it leaves Janine exposed.
In “Becoming Othello,” Debra Ann Boyd’s solo performance at Shakespeare & Company, the actress-playwright talks at one point about finding reconciliation by looking at the past and speaking truth. In “The Niceties,” truth is hard to recognize, define; and when truth is spoken, it is difficult to hear. Reconciliation feels somewhat quixotic.
“You can’t imagine what it is, to make it through 60 years doing your absolute best, and then one day find out you’ve made a mistake, and then that’s all anyone can see,” Janine says to Zoe in a subsequent meeting aimed at finding some pathway through a seemingly irreconcilable divide. “Someday you will make a mistake, Zoe. And when you do, I hope you are up against a person as bereft of empathy as yourself.”
“Look, it’s really pretty simple,” Zoe replies. “It’s not enough for you to be right. Or even for you to be good. You have to give up some of your power. Because you have too much. You have more than your share.”
“The thing is, Zoe,” Janine says moments later, ”if you make it too difficult to be a good person, you all of a sudden make people strangely comfortable with being a bad person.”
And thereby hangs a tale.