There was an episode of Leave It to Beaver in which Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver (played by Jerry Mathers) got in trouble, because he had written fictional stories in his diary — stories about himself engaged in high-risk adventures of derring-do. When his parents read this “diary,” they assumed that he had taken all of those risks, and trouble ensued…. Naturally, that 1950s domestic sitcom episode had a happy “Gee, Wally” type of ending. No so with Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot, which Bartlett Theater is currently producing in the PSI Theatre at the Durham Arts Council. In Gidion’s Knot, writing fiction can have dire, if not devastating, consequences.
When the curtain rises, Heather (Shannon Malone) is a fifth-grade teacher in a Chicago elementary school. We are in her classroom, where she is sitting at her desk after school on a Monday afternoon. Corryn (Lakeisha Coffey), a university professor of literature, arrives for a parent-teacher conference. Corryn is Gidion’s mother, and Gidion committed suicide over the weekend.
Heather is clearly baffled and exceedingly uncomfortable. Why would the mother of a deceased student feel inclined to go through with a parent-teacher conference? What we witness is not unlike a predator stalking and cornering its prey. The grieving Corryn wants answers, and she is sure that Heather has them. Heather had suspended Gidion on Friday, sending him home with a note requesting that Corryn schedule a conference with her. To make matters worse, Gidion had been beaten up on his way home.
Was Gidion’s suspension the direct cause of his suicide? What other factors might have contributed? What evidence do we have?
There are references to Jake, a sixth grader who may or may not be a bully (and may or may not have molested a first grader). There’s a note from Seneca, a female friend of Gidion’s. And there is a piece of writing that Gidion had turned in, a long, explicit, gory piece of fiction, not unlike the medieval martial ballads that his mother studies and teaches. In addition, there were some ominous, cryptic posts on Gidion’s Facebook page over the weekend.
Corryn’s inquiry is not focused just on this one teacher. Rather, it is a scathing indictment of an entire educational system that stifles (rather than nurtures) creativity. Heather’s defense of her own actions (and those of the system) involve a notion of responsibility to protect the other students.
As audience members, we are confronted with an important question: Should the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few as we teach and nurture our young? Dramatist Johnna Adams is not pedaling any pat answers; what she does is drag us, kicking and screaming, into the foray of the discussion.
The casting is superb — these performers do not simply look the part, they embody the part, and the acting is nothing short of amazing.
Lakeisha Coffey portrays Corryn as a juggernaut in her merciless pursuit of truth. Furthermore, there is never any doubt about the depths of this bereaved mother’s anguish. Be prepared to shed tears along with her as the intensity mounts.
Shannon Malone’s Heather is clearly devastated beneath the surface; but she tries her best to preserve a calm, professional façade. Teaching is Heather’s second career; she had been “in advertising,” and she has only been teaching for two years. While this scenario would be difficult for any teacher to handle, the relatively new Heather is overwhelmed. (And she gets no visible support from the administration.) Malone takes us with Heather as she experiences a panic attack while by herself and a total meltdown while in Corryn’s company.
Director Bryan Conger must have felt like a referee in a clash of titans as the company mounted this show. The metaphorical pot begins to boil very quickly, and he expertly keeps it stirred all the way to the end. Indeed, the “90 Minutes. Real time. No Intermission” that the program promises seems barely half that long.
Tab May’s set design very accurately invokes the classroom. May has chosen to display the names of various Hindu gods on Heather’s classroom bulletin board, thereby suggesting the truth of a line in the text: “The gods are watching us.” More importantly, however, there is (in the dead-center of that upstage-center bulletin board) a poster with the words “Gordian Knot” (a phrase which refers to an extremely difficult or involved problem) and a graphic that suggests a hopelessly tangled rope. We actually did a doubletake on this, asking ourselves: “Wait a minute — is it Gordian or Gidion?” The answer, of course, is “both.”
In the sequence in which Heather reads Gidion’s paper aloud, lighting designer Anthony Cacchione adds a masterful stroke that helps pull the audience into the vortex.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 20th Raleigh, NC Chatham Life & Style review by Dustin K. Britt (who awarded the show 5 of 5 stars): https://chathamlifeandstyle.com/performing-arts; and Feb. 14th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/gidions-knot/Event?oid=11416092.
Bartlett Theater presents GIDION’S KNOT at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and 24, 3 p.m. Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 3, 3 p.m. March 4 in the PSI Theatre, 120 Morris St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $26.87 ($16.52 students and active-duty military personnel and $21.69 seniors), including service fees.
BOX OFFICE: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3225090.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.facebook.com/pg/BartlettTheater/videos/.
Gidion’s Knot (2012 Contemporary American Theater Festival drama): http://johnnaadams.com/plays.htm (official web page) and https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4767 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Johnna Adams (Astoria, NY-based playwright and screenwriter): http://johnnaadams.com/ (official website), http://newdramatists.org/johnna-adams (New Dramatists bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1639942/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://twitter.com/johnnaadams (Twitter page).
Bryan Conger (Portage, IN-born Greensboro, NC director): http://bryanconger.com/ (official website), http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/377963-bryan-conger (AbouttheArtists.com bio), and https://www.facebook.com/bryan.conger.7 (Facebook page).
A native of North Carolina, Yvette L. Holder has studied theater at three institutions: the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (New York), and N.C. Central University, where she received a BA in Dramatic Arts. Yvette also promotes and produces comedy theater, as well as working with playwrights around the country during the development stage of their work. She hosts a monthly play reading session: “Sips and Scripts” at Imurj in downtown Raleigh. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read Yvette and Kurt’s reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.