Reviewed by George Basler
The title Gidion’s Knot refers to the legendary Gordian knot, a knot so intricate and tightly entangled that it is virtually impossible to untie.
Such impossible entanglements are at the center of Johnna Adams’ play, which opened this past weekend (Oct. 8-10) at the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton.
KNOW is known for presenting provocative plays, and Gidion’s Knot is no exception, touching on the hot button issues of school bullying and youth suicide. At its core, though, it is a verbal sparing match between two complex female characters entangled in a situation without a clear resolution.
Under Jeff Tagliaferro’s skillful direction, Shirley Goodman and Qiana Watson give compelling performances as the women. Their performances keep the audience fully engaged even though the play meanders at times in ways that weaken the tension the author is trying to create.
The action takes place in the fifth-grade classroom of a suburban Chicago school. A parent, Corryn (Watson), shows up for a parent/teacher conference after a teacher, Heather (Goodman), has suspended her son for five days. The boy committed suicide after the suspension, and Corryn is looking for answers, revenge or both.
The conference begins on a sour note with Corryn, a professor at a prestigious university, aiming condescending barbs at Heather, who is flustered by her appearance. The two then engage in a sometimes tense, sometimes angry and sometimes defensive confrontation about Gidion’s suicide.
Heather suspended the boy after he wrote a composition filled with horrifying images and graphic violence about killing and disemboweling teachers. The teacher is horrified; the mother defends her son’s creativity.
Gidion’s essay also implicated another fifth grader, Jake, in the rape of a first grader. The question of whether the charge is true, or false, is never answered, but Heather makes it clear she believes Jake’s denial, not Gidion’s charge. She also acknowledges she likes Jake as a student while she found Gidion unlikeable.
The play’s success, or lack of it, depends on the quality of the two actresses’ performances. KNOW Theatre is fortunate in this regard because Watson and Goodman are both first-rate.
Watson gives a blistering performance as the mother. The character is a difficult, not altogether likeable, woman who is filled with anger, sorrow and a sense of guilt that she may have failed her son. Corryn alternates between cold manipulation and white-hot emotion in her confrontation with Heather, and Watson superbly plays these conflicting characteristics. Her performance gives the play much of its power.
Goodman has the less flashy role as the teacher who works to keep her emotions in check when confronted with Corryn’s accusations. She gives a nuanced performance that uses facial expressions, vocal inflections and body language to hint at the character’s emotional fragility. Goodman’s portrayal is intelligent and well thought out.
Still, while Adams’ play has some powerful moments, it also seems unnecessarily drawn out even though it’s under 90 minutes long. Moreover, the play has parts that stretch believability. For one thing, Gidion’s essay is so vile and disturbing that it’s incomprehensible that Heather didn’t immediately run to the school psychologist for help before suspending the boy.
Also, Corryn’s reaction to her son’s essay is difficult to understand. Instead of being concerned that Gidion may have emotional problems, she praises her son’s work as “a wonderful story” and goes on to lecture Heather about the importance of artistic expression, using the writings of the Marquis de Sade as an example.
In an age of Columbine and Newtown, the response is morally obtuse and undermines sympathy for the character. The only explanation is that Corryn is in total denial about her child’s mental state. But Adams’ writing gives no indication this the case. Instead, Corryn’s guilt seems to stem from the fact that she didn’t recognize Gidion was “a beautiful writer” and, to her mind, a budding genius.
Gidion’s Knot is deliberately ambiguous. It leaves audience members free to draw their own conclusions about the characters and the wrenching situation at the heart of the play. Is Corryn a sympathetic figure, or a cruel manipulator who is playing a cat and mouse game with Heather? Is Heather a caring teacher, or a frustrated neurotic?
I suspect different audience members will reach different conclusions based on their preconceived notions going into the play.
Watson and Goodman’s fine acting go a long way to covering up the play’s flaws and making Gidion’s Knot worth a viewing. But ultimately, the play is one that engages the intellect more than the emotions.
IF YOU GO: Gidion’s Knot will run weekends through Oct. 24 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 ($20 for seniors, $15 for students). There is also a pay-what you-can night at 8 p.m. this Thursday (Oct. 14). Due to COVID-19, all audience members must provide proof of vaccination at the door and wear masks at all times in the building. For more information and to order tickets, visit www.knowtheatre.org