BWW Reviews: Forum Offers Must-See Theatre with GIDION'S KNOT
First off, let me tell you that Johnna Adams' contemporary play, Gidion's Knot, is not one of your standard, paint-by-the-numbers, afterschool special type of plays about bullying in the schools. As presented at Forum Theatre, it's a heart-wrenching theatrical experience with so many twists and turns delicately woven into a deceptively simple plot that one might be apt to ponder, "what did I just see?" upon viewing it. While I have been prone to ask myself that question at one time or another when I am disappointed in a production, in this case, I would ask it for mainly more positive reasons. This play and this production of it - though not without issues - is one that deserves pondering long after curtain call due to the issues examined within the script, Adams' way with words, and the emotionally-charged performances.
In Scott Hengen's meticulously designed, bright and cheerful elementary school classroom sits fifth grade teacher Ms. Clark (Katy Carkuff) in standard teacher apparel comprised of a cardigan and business skirt (costume designer Brittany Graham). Her moments of deep thought are interrupted when a seemingly lost parent (Caroline Stefanie Clay) - dressed in clothing that would suggest a bolder personality and a worldlier nature - knocks on her door because she's having difficulty finding the location of her scheduled parent-teacher conference. When it turns out the mother, Corryn Fell, is actually at the school to meet Ms. Clark and participate in a parent-teacher conference that Ms. Clark thought was cancelled, tensions arise. To spoil the intricacies of the plot beyond this point would be a disservice because this one needs to be experienced live and somewhat cold. However, suffice it to say the meeting was tied to Gidion's recent suspension. Only, Gidion is now dead. Fell wants answers as what events spurred her child's suspension, as well as Gidion's standing in the school and his relationship with Ms. Clark and the other students. As challenging truths are revealed - even as wallflower Clark is reluctant to have this conversation - larger issues are explored, including whether free speech and more than boilerplate creativity should be tolerated in the classroom. Another concern is the extent to which students should conform to certain standards. Moments of tense drama, laughter, and horror are found in the hour plus powerful exchange between teacher and parent.
Certainly, I would be remiss not to point out that some of the aspects of Adams' script ring a bit implausible. Cue, for example, a discussion about a sick cat, the very fact that Fell still came to the parent-teacher meeting, and (to one extent or another) Fell's rather black and white reaction to a story Gidion wrote that served as a basis for his suspension. However, once one can get past those somewhat incredulous situations, it is possible to become immersed in the larger discourse at play.
As powerfully acted by Carkuff and Clay under the direction of Cristina Alicea, it's quite easy to see the power/perspective differential between the two women and how personalities as well as initial judgments one makes about the other and vice-versa factor into how the nearly uniformly tense conversation plays out. Alicea, for one, seems to be more focused on the nature of the relationship between the two women rather than the what, why, and how of the events surrounding Gidion's suspension/death in her interpretation of the play. This is probably a good move because of those problematic plausibility concerns inherent in the plot that I alluded to earlier. It also brings to prominence the larger social issues with which Adams is concerned about, including the role of parent and teacher in influencing the way a child is educated, freedom of expression, and behavioral expectations for children. In this way, Gidion is not just a single child we never meet, but is a symbol for any kid who might not fit within a pretty, little, neat box.
While a few subtle changes in the tension between the two characters might have made the production even more of a compelling character/relationship study, I will say that both actresses do quite well to bring their very different characters to life in a consistent way that serves the script well. Adams' imagery-filled words, particularly in the latter part of the quick 70 minute show, have a way of reaching you to the core at an emotional level. This is particularly true when expertly delivered by both Carkuff and Clay.
It's a powerful production of a powerful play.
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.
Gidion's Knot - a co-production between Forum Theatre and NextStop Theatre Company - plays at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre at 8641 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD through August 3. On August 28, it will begin production at NextStop Theatre Company's home at the Industrial Strength Theatre located at 269 Sunset Park Drive in Herndon, VA where it will continue through September 14. For tickets to the run at Forum, you can either purchase them online in advance or at the theatre. If purchased day of show at the theatre, a pay-what-you-can policy is in place. For tickets to the run at NextStop, purchase them online.