A play could be written about the way the first show of the new season at Portland Stage came to have its long-awaited world premiere.

Getting “Perseverance” on stage required perseverance from many theater professionals and institutions in dealing with the delays forced upon them by the pandemic. A health crisis suffered by the author further tested the resolve of all who sought to bring this extraordinary new play to the bright lights of opening night.

Maine author Callie Kimball came up with the idea for this work pursuant to a commission she received some years ago from Portland Stage and the Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative. Among other things, her play raises issues of the social and personal intersections of gender, class and race, as well as the “ownership of history.” Alongside its didactic aspirations though, Kimball, director Jade King Carroll and a talented cast and crew have succeeded in keeping the two-hour play within the realm of engaging theater art.

The play intertwines the story of the life of Perseverance “Percy” Turner, an African American schoolteacher, writer and suffragist in 1920 with that of Dawn Davis, a white schoolteacher and candidate for office in the same fictional Maine town 100 years later. The audience gets to jump back and forth in time as the two women’s related stories unfold. When one story is being spotlighted, the other is often carried on in pantomime.

Nedra Snipes plays Percy, a sort of refugee from a dangerous South who finds herself teaching three Black students in rural Maine under the watchful and lecherous eye of a corrupt white “Judge,” the latter played with an initially laughable sense of entitlement by Vin Knight. Percy is smart and proud of what she believes is a possible “true womanhood” now that suffrage is secured.

Snipes is charismatic in her role, inhabiting her character’s clear-eyed determination and strong sense of right and wrong. Percy’s tentative friendship/romance with handyman Moss, played by William Oliver Watkins, finds both of them seizing the opportunity to connect on a human level in some of the play’s more touching moments.

Catherine Buxton as Dawn Davis, a schoolteacher running for election in 2020, with Sally Wood, right, as her campaign manager, Dilly.

Catherine Buxton plays Dawn, a remote-learning teacher in 2020 who aspires to run for office on a platform of education reform. Her likable lug husband Coop, played by Brendan D Hickey, is supportive but not terribly enthusiastic about the idea of her running, while her new campaign manager, Dilly, played by Sally Wood, is all in on finding ways to sell her candidate to the voters.

Buxton and Hickey create some sparks as the harder edges of their characters’ relationship are revealed in the heat of the campaign. Both, however, convey Dawn and Coop’s basic affection for one another, despite their differing perspectives.

Wood steals a number of early scenes, injecting a near manic and very funny energy into her exhortations for candidate Dawn to punch up her political messaging. Her Dilly’s part in the misappropriation of lost histories, sadly, will deflate her by the close.

The set by Anita Stewart, with its dilapidated house exterior and generally rustic look, skews to the Percy end of the story. Laptops and cellphones signify the contemporary era of Dawn. The multiple-period costumes by Kathleen P. Brown catch the eye in a variety of telling ways.

Like the title character, “Perseverance” is about moving forward with “good purpose.” All involved have done that by finally bringing this important play to life.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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