by Phil Beck
Iowa City – Gidion’s Knot, which opened at Public Space One last Friday and runs through March 12, challenges its audience to understand a mystery without knowing all the facts. Even those we learn in the course of Johnna Adams’ one-act drama are subject to opposing interpretations. It’s intriguing, but Adams’ script leaves one too many holes to be completely successful. Dreamwell Theatre’s production is solid, but the play is flawed.
It’s essentially a character sketch of two women who meet under devastating circumstances: Heather (Michele Payne Hinz), a 5th grade teacher, and Corryn (Doreen Loring), the mother of Gidion, a boy in her class. Corryn arrives for a Monday conference with her son’s teacher to find out why she suspended him from school the previous Friday. It’s a meeting fraught with emotion because Gidion is dead. He committed suicide shortly after returning home that Friday. Baffled, the grieving mother is determined to find out why. She believes Heather has the answers, but the teacher either doesn’t or is unwilling to part with them—perhaps a little of both. What follows is a tense contest of wills, Corryn probing for information, Heather resisting the demand to say what kind of boy she thinks Gidion was. The different ways each woman deals with the loss, and the accompanying feelings of guilt, are also in stark contrast.
The play is therefore designed for all kinds of conflict, so what is most surprising, and pleasing, about Gidion is that it’s relatively quiet, done without shouting or histrionics. Adams does a good job of creating drama out of the subtle shifts in each woman’s internal state, eschewing noisy externalizing. It’s a cool approach to an emotionally explosive topic.
Both actresses handle this difficult task gracefully. As the sympathetic but guarded teacher, Hinz is soft-spoken and self-effacing, signaling her unease with the situation, but conveying Heather’s underlying firmness through careful, precise diction. Corryn is the more complex character, unconventionally voicing her grief through pointed inquiry and intellectual outrage rather than outpourings of emotion. Adams’ choice of this characterization for the bereaved mother is the play’s most intriguing element but also its riskiest. Corryn walks a narrow line between channeling anger into principled protest and appearing cold and manipulative. She’s the aggrieved party but the less likable person. Loring’s performance effectively captures these nuances, despite her difficulties with dialogue in one or two scenes.
Matthew Falduto’s direction keeps the action from flagging despite numerous pauses and silences written into the script, and his staging subtly underscores the characters’ relationship—he keeps the actors facing each other nearly all the time to emphasize their opposition, but has each turn her back to the other at moments when they open up and are vulnerable. Much of the play’s impact depends on how well it evokes the presence of the unseen Gidion. Adams’ script does this powerfully, but Falduto chose to add Gidion’s image and voice to the production’s design. I’m not sure either was necessary, but the decision reinforces the fact that the boy is still a very real part of both women’s lives.
“Gidion’s Knot” is a reference to the “Gordian Knot” that Alexander the Great famously cut in half with a sword instead of untying like so many before him had tried but failed to do. The knot that remains tied is the play’s unanswered puzzle—What was Gidion really like? What did he do or was done to him that drove him to suicide? We learn he was troubled–and that he took the direct, brutal approach, and cut his own life short instead of attempting to untangle the bind he was in.
But why? The play’s greatest weakness is its failure to justify suicide as part of Gidion’s story. It’s a short play with a running time under 90 minutes. Its visit with its terrible subject is too short, our glimpse of its characters too brief, its framework too slight to bear the weight of this kind of tragedy. The audience isn’t given enough time to understand the motivations behind it, or the reasons the two women react the way they do. We’ve barely come to know them by the end of the play, and Gidion we know only through the contradictory meanings he has for each of them. Adams has a powerful subject for a play in Gidion’s Knot but unfortunately she doesn’t do it justice. She cut it too short, like Gidion’s own brief life.