Theatre Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
2.5 out of 4
Have you ever tried to wash your hands with a turned off leaky faucet? Soap in hand, you struggle to accomplish the simple task of cleaning your hands because the water just isn’t coming out fast enough to be productive. That’s how gaining information felt in Eclectic Full Contact Theatre’s production of Gidion’s Knot. Now, Johnna Adams’ play isn’t necessarily a low-pressure stream of water; more so, Katherine Siegel’s direction is simply in need of a good plumber.
‘Why are we here?’ Adams’ play posits. Heather (Michelle Annette), a shaken fifth-grade public school teacher, is faced with an unanticipated parent teacher conference with Corryn (Julie Partyka), the cautiously concerned mother of the student Heather recently suspended, Gidion. The cause of the suspension is unknown by Corryn. That’s why she’s here in Heather’s classroom. But Heather, sans the backup of her principal or school counselor, is reluctant to delve into the details.
The conversations that follow are stilted. Revelations are few and far between as the characters await the arrival of Godot—excuse me, the principal. Part of this is intentional by Adams. She leaves just enough information about the events and the child that she is able to open the door to a fascinating conversation on bullying, depression, and blame. Far too often today’s news is weighted by reports of another child who took their own life. The inevitable questions follow: How could this happen? Where were the parents, the teachers? Did no one listen to the cries for help? Adams’ play sets out to explore the fact that the answers to these questions aren’t always simple.
A Gordion Knot is the term for “an extremely difficult or involved problem.” A gifted, but troubled student, for instance. The image is an ‘impossible’ knot, the challenge is to undo it. You can struggle at it and become increasingly frustrated, or you can step back and realize that the simplest way to rid yourself of the knot is simply to cut it. It’s this idea of looking at what could be called a problem from another angle to find a simple solution instead of reveling in anger that Adams seeks to explore and Siegel seems to miss. Instead of two smart, caring women struggling against each other to find the right way to handle a situation, the play plods along as each is buried in their own internal emotional struggle.
There is a simple disconnect between Siegel’s direction and the play’s content throughout the play. Bewildering things like the text having Heather ask Corryn to “come in” when Siegel already has her in the room or the text saying Gidion’s admirer sat “behind” him while staging it so it’s indicated that she sat pretty clearly to his left. Or having Rachel Lake’s lights (and thus the audience’s focus) bear down on Heather revealing the troubling cause of Gidion’s suspension when the most interesting action on stage is how Partyka’s Corryn (in mild darkness) is taking the news. Small issues with clear fixes that tell of a deeper misunderstanding.
It all comes to a head in Annette and Partyka’s acting. Both full of rich emotional lives that aren’t connected to their partner on stage. There is a shocking lack of empathy. This is a play about blame, so some vitriol is to be expected, but without at least some desire to understand each other, these characters might as well be shouting across the Grand Canyon. Partyka, especially, still offers a very strong performance that gains steam as the play does. Taking blame and pointing fingers, she is caught in a beautiful whirlwind of emotional peaks and valleys.
Adams’ play isn’t perfect and should be faulted for the occasions that it is intentionally vague—as well as the few plot holes left (which would include too many spoilers to cover). But Siegel’s direction doesn’t help. Haphazard blocking moments aside, this play longs for two characters you can be invested in. In an age where childhood depression and bullying (online or otherwise) seem to be exceedingly common, Adams doesn’t offer a PSA. She offers her audience a chance to step back and perhaps reevaluate how you look at these troubled children. What this production lacks is the empathy typically needed to find the solution to this kind of problem.
GIDION’S KNOT runs through July 2nd, 2017 at The Athenaeum Theatre Studio Two, 2936 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657. Tickets are on sale via www.eclectic-theatre.com or by calling the Athenaeum Theatre Box Office at 773-935-6875. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.