Gidion’s Knot is an emotionally powerful play that takes an intense look at bullying, school vs. parent responsibilities, and tragedy. Presented by South of Broadway Theatre, it's particularly appropriate in light of all the recent discussion on school violence.
Written by Johnna Adams and directed by Mark Gorman, the plot centers on the aftermath of a fifth grader’s suicide after he is suspended for a violent, graphic piece he wrote and passed around class. Interestingly, it’s set two months in the future, early April 2013, beginning at 2:45 on a Tuesday, in a fifth grade classroom of a public school in Chicago.
Actors Kristen Kos and Lynda Harvey-Carter are phenomenal. Kos, who plays fifth grade teacher Heather Clark, is appropriately snappish, frustrated, cool, and even in her struggle with how to interact with the parent. We feel her steely need to stay in control and to keep the parent at a healthy distance. Harvey-Carter plays Corryn Fell, Gidion’s mother and a professor of medieval poetry. She is convincingly intelligent but sleep-deprived, bitter, and bewildered, on the verge of a breakdown. Harvey-Carter is believable as a strong yet vulnerable mother trying to make sense of her son’s death, while Ms. Fell is a good close-reader, not just of literature but of situations, so it’s even more puzzling that she seems to be so out of touch at unearthing her son’s life at school. The tension between the two women is palpable, and their fraught relationship, while each is trying to make sense of the other, is entirely believable.
The play is one act and the set, by Mark Gorman, is that of a typical fifth-grade classroom. Ms. Clark’s desk sits in front of empty school desks. Lining the walls are pictures of presidents, a world map, inspiring posters, and student papers tacked to a bulletin board. A student-made poster of “Gordian’s Knot” is prominently featured on the orangey-pink walls.
The director does a brilliant job of keeping the tension taut, though it takes a few minutes to get going. In the very beginning, there are several minutes of fuss about keeping the parent/teacher appointment that was made before Gidion’s death, whether or not to keep the meeting, etc., and here the dialogue feels labored.
However, the play is worth seeing. It asks critical questions about responsibility and blame, and presents a balanced yet unsettling reality: you’re not sure whose side (parent or teacher’s) to be on, which is part of the point. Other themes are those of regret, the importance of listening and being present, and of shoring up the fragments of what is known of a life.
Gidion’s Knot also asks real questions about art and freedom of expression: when do art and imagination cross ethical lines? When do we deem it appropriate to seek outside involvement? Must art conform to the conventional? When is art “art,” and when should we be concerned?
Finally, the play is about honesty — about speaking the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s painful — and about how kindness and working through grief together is possible in the wake of tragedy. The play lasts an hour and a half with no intermission, and there is a discussion with the actors and director after the play, which, for opening night at least, proved very productive.