Humans are self-deceivers; they often avoid confronting painful truths. When/if their frauds lead to catastrophe, then they are forced to look at how their self-duplicity created the consequences. With self-deception, there is the inevitable manipulation of others and the abusive “passing the blame” of one’s hated flaws onto these victims who may or may not suspect the manipulator’s ulterior motives. If the victims are enablers, they accept the blame and help push the abuser into their catastrophe. Ideally, the sooner one confronts the horrific inner Gorgon of truth, the better. Confrontation leads to enlightenment and growth. Delay, brings stony emotions, obfuscations, and more lies, until there is collapse, self-destruction, or madness.
In her play Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams explores how a mother and a fifth grade teacher dance around the “truth” of an incident which involves Gidion who was in Heather Clark’s fifth grade public school class. The dance provokes mother Corryn (Karen Leiner), and teacher Heather (Dara O’Brien), to inadvertently lay bare their souls in an interesting power manipulation. Rather than confront their inner Gorgon, and help one another, they pity, judge, condemn, project, and appear cold-hearted: all acts of self-deception and obfuscation. As the play records their convolutions, we, the audience, try to unravel the mystery of what happened to Gidion and what is happening in the present between the two women. But our attempt to unravel the knots of lies and truths remains feeble. In a fog we wonder about the significance of what we are seeing and question if these characters will ever acknowledge their inner Gorgon, thus destroying its power over them.
Playwright Johnna Adams has contrived a complex, hyper-charged conundrum of a play. Directed with precision, insight and sensitivity by Austin Pendleton, Gidion’s Knot leaves one spinning about the characters’ manipulations and duplicities as it examines the issue of social and parental responsibility. I cannot envision many other directors who so aptly could have created an atmosphere to elicit the marvelous performances. Because of the team’s united efforts this amazing production thrills and provokes.
Pendleton’s talents adhere with the vivid, alive portrayals by actors Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien. Their creation is a continuous thrumming of palpable tension that keeps us engaged. Can the mysteries be solved given the complexities and needs of the characters? Pendleton’s, Leiner’s and O’Brien’s masterful work illuminates the charades, blinding rationales, and subtle justifications the characters use to avoid their miserable inner truths. We recognize how Corryn’s and Heather’s self-deceptions have lead to catastrophe. Will these women see the light and help one another or resort to recriminations and judgements enabling and fomenting the inevitability of another disaster?
As the actors and director elucidate these points, the entanglements intensify. The more we attempt to extricate the truths, the more we are caught up in the characters’ rationalizations and self-fraud. We empathize because we are looking at ourselves. We realize that for them, there may be no way out except to live with an inner morass that will worsen. Unlike a Gordian Knot, an allusion aptly used by the playwright, the knot Gidion has created cannot be cut.
For the setting and backdrop Adams uses a conventional educational system and an atypical parent-teacher conference. Along the way she touches upon the issues of our present public educational system’s cultural assumptions about curriculum, appropriate behavior, and the responsibility of the parent, child, teacher, and system to produce learning. She also infers how these assumptions may run counter to the true nature of learning as art and how such learning prompts the finest art. Though parts of the play might appear to be contrived, (i.e. Gidion’s act, Corryn’s choice to put Gidion in a public school, the absence of communication between the school and parent), the playwright tries to smooth over the glitches with the characters’ logical explanations. Just at the point where one might find the contrivance an obstacle, Pendleton and the actors patch up the holes with brilliant performance art that is completely “in the moment.” We are swept up by the life we see and don’t give the contrivance much thought.
The playwright focuses Gidion’s Knot around Corryn’s interaction with Heather during the conference. When Corryn first enters the classroom, we believe she is misplaced because Ms. Heather Clark is shocked that she’s come. Corryn tells her she is there to discover the reasons why Gidion, a brilliant student, has been given a suspension by Ms. Clark. She wants to understand what happened to her son and figure out the motivations for his behaviors. We suspect there is more to her initially benign response because of Heather’s amazement at her presence. As Corryn probes Heather for answers, she becomes hostile and aggressive, and the underlying tensions between the parent and the teacher grow. Corryn’s acidic comments push Heather Clark into retreat mode with long periods of silent acquiescence as she takes in Corryn’s opprobrium. Throughout the exchanges we wonder who is being truthful, who is avoiding reality and why is the “bullying” necessary?
Little by little, the playwright unfolds the mysteries. We find out why Heather Clark is shocked to see Corryn in her classroom. However, this initial revelation is only the beginning. Gidion has left a knot to unravel about his behavior; we search for answers about the extent to which Corryn and Heather might have been culpable in effecting Gidion’s nullifying actions. The playwright adeptly guides the audience through the teacher’s and parent’s perspectives. From Corryn’s perspective we want to know more from Heather Clark. Surely, the teacher understands what happened to Gidion. We understand Corryn’s need to manipulate, browbeat, and abuse the truth from Heather. However, we know from Heather’s reticence that she is protecting someone and is keeping certain situations in her classroom confidential. Aligning with Heather’s professional perspective, then, she appears to be in the right. We assume that Corryn is too emotionally invested to see clearly and rationally. But who is Heather protecting? Heather? The principal? The children? Gidion? Corryn? And from what?
Because of the superb performances which ooze strain and inner turmoil, we yearn to understand and this suspense keeps our attention. As more of the complications are revealed, the less truth we know. The more vitriol Corryn expresses, the farther she moves from inner understanding of herself and her impact on her son. The more Heather Clark enables Corryn’s bitter “truth” seeking with her spare explanations, the less we understand about Gidion’s motivation and Heather’s part in it. Was Gidion’s suspension truly justified? Or was it an example of the public education system curtailing sensitivity, artistry, and creativity as suggested by Corryn? Does the letter that Corryn finds in Gidion’s desk reveal he has been damaged by classmates? Or is there a deeper, hidden truth which will have ramifications upon Corryn’s understanding of herself and her son?
Throughout the play we are riveted because we are off balance. We do not know who is “fronting” whom. By the conclusion we are uncertain and that is the best we can hope for because the characters are inscrutable. We should not be projecting our own failed, misplaced assumptions on them. The issues of where parental responsibility and social responsibility begin and end are not resolved. We do understand that the educational system presented by the playwright (somewhat contrived) is not ready to deal with who or what Gidion is, but then neither is Corryn. Lastly, there is Gidion. In fifth grade, he is past the age of accountability. To what extent does the final culpability rest with him?
Gidion’s Knot is being performed at 59E59 Theaters until March 9th.