If Gidion’s Knot were an installment of a TV series, it could be considered a “bottle episode.” The play takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single fifth-grade classroom, with the characters trapped inside. The difference is they’re trapped not by some slapstick incident involving a broken lock and an accidentally detached doorknob, but by the weight of the secrets and guilt that consume them.
Gidion’s Knot, by playwright Johnna Adams, had its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2012, and Forum Theatre’s production marks its local premiere. With just two characters, and the aforementioned single set (designed by Scott Hengen), it’s a relatively simple staging—but the emotions and themes illustrated in the work are the opposite.
The story begins with fifth-grade teacher Heather (Katy Carkuff) grading papers in her classroom. She’s clearly upset, and soon breaks down into hysterical crying—the hiccupy, gasping kind you only indulge in when you’re totally alone. Soon, though, she hears a knock on her door, and in comes Corryn (Caroline Stefanie Clay), the mother of one of her pupils, who’s arrived for a parent-teacher conference Heather scheduled. Heather’s discomfort at Corryn’s presence is a tip-off that something is very much awry, though exactly what that could be is not immediately revealed.
Eventually it comes out that Corryn’s son, Gideon, was suspended from school, though Heather is at first reluctant to say why. Without giving away too much of the plot, Heather and Corryn quickly go from cordial to adversarial, and, temporarily, back again. In the spaces between, each woman displays a startling range of emotion that runs the gamut from anger to annoyance to despair to pride, with director Cristina Alicea coaxing affecting performances out of her two stars. While Heather, dressed in a pitch-perfect schlubby cardigan and modest-length skirt (costumes by Brittany Graham) looks the part of a fortyish schoolteacher, the younger Carkuff doesn’t quite have the presence to make her fiery head-to-head with Corryn believable. But anyone would have a difficult time matching the powerhouse that is Clay. She’s mesmerizing as the grieving, furious mother, seesawing from accusatory to apologetic as an even deeper current of emotion roils beneath the surface. She’s also the source of much of the play’s humor, without which it would be almost unbearably tense and somber. (Gidion’s Knot, it should be said, manages to wring a surprising amount of comic relief from a discussion of a dying cat.)
The biggest quibble is that the truth about Gideon’s situation is never explicitly revealed, which is frustrating. But the idea, as the old public relations adage goes, appearance is reality—and by that logic, the truth doesn’t really matter. The miscommunication between Heather and Corynn at times reaches almost Three Stooges levels of tooth-grinding opacity; as Heather waits in vain for the principal who never appears, one wants to just scream at her to get on with it already. When the circumstances of Gideon’s suspension are finally revealed, it sparks discussions about the issues of cyberbullying, freedom of speech, and (while not ever named as such) inherent racial biases.
The play ends without offering easy answers—or really any answers—to the questions it raised. As Corryn leaves, there’s a sense she and Heather haven’t changed their views, and yet they’ve somehow managed, however slightly, to change each other. If you’re looking for an allegory about the dangers of school bullying, this is not the play for you. But as a searing portrait of two women thrown together by an unthinkable situation and forced to try to understand one another, it’s fascinating.
Gidion’s Knot is at Forum Theatre through August 3. Running time is about one hour and ten minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($20 to $25) are available online; a limited number of pay-what-you-can tickets are available at the box office before each show.
Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.