Issues of race, sexuality, gender and equality are sensitive, hot-button topics in today’s volatile social-political climate. Passionate debates rage as people seek to right wrongs, but could we be endangering free speech?

On the heels of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Portland Stage is presenting a brutally honest play that provocatively questions the often blurred line between free speech and repression. In this day and age, is there still a place for “niceties?”

“The Niceties,” written by Eleanor Burgess, is set in the office of Ivy League college professor Janine Bosko (Susan Knight). Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves line the oval-shaped office, spaced by paintings and pictures of Revolutionary historical figures, including a prominently displayed painting of George Washington. Also an author and textbook compiler, Janine takes great pride in being a well-versed historian.

Janine is meeting with one of her students, Zoe Reed (Alexis Green), to provide feedback on her thesis about the American Revolution. The meeting begins cordially with Janine focusing on the grammar, but rapidly turns nasty when Janine begins to challenge the logic and historical support behind Zoe’s radical thesis, which purports that America’s revolution was successful because of slavery. All social niceties disintegrate, as Zoe turns from a student eager to secure her teacher’s approval into a ferocious fighter who is willing to destroy whoever opposes her myopic viewpoint.

A fierce debate ensues, with both parties offering valid points and inflexible tunnel vision as the life experiences of the white baby boomer and the black millennial diverge and clash. Zoe doesn’t believe that an aging, privileged white woman has the right to teach her, a member of a historically oppressed minority (despite coming from privilege herself).

The hourlong first act culminates in catastrophic consequences that find both the teacher and student reeling in the aftermath in Act 2, almost two months later. Despite attempts to find common ground, the niceties are once again dispensed with as their viewpoints diverge, with Zoe asserting that no one should be made to feel uncomfortable and Janine championing the preservation of free speech.

Megan Sandberg-Zakian directs a thought-provoking production that allows the audience to see the strengths and flaws in both characters’ viewpoints. Neither is the hero, or villain, with Green’s fierce passion as Zoe nicely challenging the notion that Janine is the oppressor. Her character is strong and opinionated, at times shifting sympathies to Janine, who is ultimately struggling to teach in an environment restrained by political correctness.

The dialogue is intense as the two actors debate their characters’ political and societal views. Green is a powerhouse, often spewing out great amounts of clever dialogue with barely a breath or pause.

Portland Stage’s “The Niceties” is the kind of production that incites passionate debate long after the curtain closes. It’s a well-executed production that offers up thought-provoking ideas and reminds audiences of the need for open mindedness and flexibility in these ever-changing times.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. Contact her at:

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Twitter: @ahboyle