Bridge Rep's "Gidion's Knot"
In the film “Little Big Man”, Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb (no relation to this reviewer) bids goodbye to his adopted father Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who heads to the top of a mountain to die; when he returns alive the next morning, he explains “sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t”. The same can be said for theatrical magic, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t. In the case of Bridge Rep’s current production, “Gidion’s Knot”, by Johnna Adams, the combination of play, director and actors makes for true dramatic magic. It’s a terrific choice with which to end their first full season. Its world premiere was produced at the 2010 Contemporary American Theatre Festival at Shepherd University in West Virginia, with subsequent productions all over the country including off-Broadway. The title references the term Gordian Knot, an ancient metaphor for an apparently unsolvable, intricate and complex problem, which in fact can often be disentangled by thinking outside the box. It’s a term utilized as long ago as in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Turn him to any cause of policy, the Gordian Knot of it he will unloose.” Adams’ concise play consists of a single seventy-five minute intermission-less scene (in real time) depicting that relatively modern invention of the parent/teacher conference. We first find fifth grade teacher Heather Clark (Olivia D’Ambrosio) as she sets up her classroom for this event, apparently nervous and upset. The mother of Gidion, one of her students, Corryn Fell (Deb Martin) arrives; Heather states she had not been expecting her.
Two facts about this play are abundantly clear: reviewing it without unintentionally revealing a few spoilers is difficult, to say the least, and its power depends largely on the balance struck between the histrionic talents of its two female antagonists. The first fact necessitates as little plot discussion as one can muster, and so be it. The latter requires that both actors, individually and as a team, be on an equal playing field, as it were. Fortunately, Martin and D’Ambrosio (the company’s Producing Artistic Director) are perfectly matched. As sensitively directed by Karen MacDonald, they make this confrontation seem all too real. In these times of heightened awareness of the prevalence of school bullying, this work is a particularly relevant one. While the first half hour or so may be a bit slow in revealing pertinent plot points, it lays down some clues to the conflict at hand, and gradually becomes an intense, tautly presented portrayal of two differing sides of a basic argument of ideas within the current educational system. On the one hand you have an evasive neophyte teacher, while on the other hand you have a tightly wound graduate professor of literature. The two of them are in a cultural mash-up over aggression vs. defensiveness, the right to express oneself freely vs. communal paranoia that stifles individual imagination, and grief vs. culpability. One aspect that does become clear is that positions of parents always change when their own children are involved. The interaction of a mother in grief and a teacher overwhelmed with emotion is captivating. At one point the mother declares “I’m exactly where I should be”, denigrating the teacher’s “all two years” of experience, and claims that while men face midlife crises by getting hair transplants or trophy wives, women “just make bad choices”.
The play is like an onion, revealing more with each cutting remark. By the time it reaches its logical conclusion, it’s taken the audience on an unforgettable ride. The plot requires a bit of suspension of disbelief; it’s hard to accept that even a relatively new teacher would reveal so much personal information (occupational background, marital status, whether she herself had children, even what pet she owns) in such an unprofessional manner. Chalk it up perhaps to the emotional state she is in, and why. It’s a minor flaw in the course of this amazingly fine new work. The technical elements, from the Scenic Design by Esme Allen to the Lighting Design by Katy Atwell, Sound Design by David Remedios and Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, are also well done.
It’s a timely piece, and well-timed as well. Adams has pulled off a two-hander that would be hard to match. As one watches the knot unravel, it would be hard to imagine not being profoundly saddened by this extraordinary play. It’s a high point of this, or any, season.