“This is the saddest play I’ve ever seen in my life,” a friend opined in the lobby of Shepherd University’s Frank Center. He is a theater professional, and has seen a lot of plays. But Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ stunning new play having its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is as sad as life itself, and as funny and startling as well.
Let’s get this out of the way at the outset: this is a play about the death of a child. It is also a play about the right to free expression, and whether it is limited by society’s needs; and about the support a mother must and will give her child. It is the story of a confrontation between a mother and a teacher. Theatrical productions routinely warn about the presence of “adult material” when a play depicts sex in some form, but there is no play with more adult material at the CATF than this one.
It is set in a fifth-grade classroom, festooned with colorful pictures of Presidents and animals, with A+ essays (in beautiful handwriting!) tacked to a bulletin board on the wall (Margaret McKowen is responsible for this fantastic attention to detail). Director Ed Herendeen loads the classroom with a gaggle of fifth-graders (all uncredited) and a student monitor (also uncredited) to supplement the scenery as we walk into the theater. Eventually, Ms. Clarke (the fabulous Joey Parsons) walks in, and pupils and monitor depart. Ms. Clarke doesn’t know it, but she is about to begin the parent-teacher conference she scheduled but never expected to have.
Gidion’s Knot, unlike the legendary knot suggested by its name, is raveled so delicately that to unspool a single thread endangers the revelation of the entire piece. Suffice it to say that Gidion has written a beautiful, disturbing story, and that story is at the heart of the conflict between Ms. Clarke and Gidion’s mother Corryn (the fabulous Robin Walsh). Dealing with a child’s violent fantasies, presented as art, is one of the most difficult problems in education, as the educator does not know whether she is dealing with an incipient Poe or Lovecraft, or with another Seung-Hui Cho, who wrote murderous fantasies before mowing down thirty-two people at Virginia Tech five years ago.
What I can say is that Parsons and Walsh are two of the best actors you will ever see on stage together, regardless of the quality of the play. I would pay good money to see them in Menopause the Musical or some similar trash; to see them in this wonderful play (and in the intimate confines of the Center for Contemporary Arts) is like having caviar on top of your lobster.
They engage in an exquisitely choreographed dance of aggression and defensiveness; it is evident that they both believe they are right, and that they both believe themselves responsible for the death of the child. Toward the end there is a moment of sadness so explosively comic as to realign the play’s universe; this is catharsis, in its truest and rawest form. Lesser actors could not pull it off; it takes great talent to give this scene the punch that Adams’ writing deserves, and Parsons and Walsh are sufficient to the task. Director Ed Herendeen deserves our applause, and thanks, for getting these two great actors and leading them to these superb performances.
Gidion’s Knot – like the two other great plays of the festival, Barcelona and The Exceptionals, consistently confounds expectations and explodes clichés. If there is only one play that you can see at the CATF, it is probably this one.
By Johnna Adams
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, without intermission