A brief refresher on an ancient legend: To become the next emperor of Asia, a contender had to untie an intricate knot produced by King Gordias of Phrygia. But the knot was so firmly entangled, even Alexander the Great was forced to slash it with his sword to undo it.
There is no magic saber wielded by a super-warrior to loosen the snarl in Johnna Adams’ remarkable play “Gidion’s Knot.” Nor is there any triumph in two concerned women trying to make sense of a convoluted tragedy.
But in Seattle Public Theater director Shana Bestock’s taut staging of this one-act, comforting closure would be a cheat. This is a drama that boldly confronts the limits of an adult’s understanding of a troubled child and a frayed social network. “Gidion’s Knot” forces the audience to confront that, too.
In the bright, inviting fifth-grade classroom of an elementary school (conjured in excellent detail by set and lighting designer Richard Schaefer), a young teacher, Heather (Rebecca Olson), sits alone at her desk.
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It’s been a distressing day for her. And it is about to get much rougher, as the flamboyantly articulate Corryn (Heather Hawkins) arrives, unexpected, for a meeting. Something has happened to Corryn’s son Gidion, and she wants answers. Heather evades her questions.
The mystery of what occurred, and why, and who should be blamed for it, will be unknotted bit by bit, over the next 75 minutes, with a wall clock ticking off the time. Blunt talk of classroom bullying, fantasized violence, artistic freedom, single parenting will be aired. World views will clash. Rage will be vented, tensions will loosen and tighten.
“Gidion’s Knot” teases out information and emotions with such skill, it keeps you guessing and wondering.
Adams plunks us down in America’s educational Ground Zero, where suspicion and fear are now part of the curriculum. Teachers like Heather are on their guard, wary that misfit (or just unconventional?) children could endanger themselves and others. Parents like Corryn have their own agendas and expect a very high level of tolerance and understanding from overstressed teachers.
With artful complexity, “Gidion’s Knot” poses two adversaries worthy of our compassion. But neither one is devoid of responsibility in this matter, despite their mutual concern for the unseen but clearly sensitive, exceptional Gidion.
Giving away more details about what precipitated their standoff would be to defuse the strategically rigged revelations Adams detonates. It is no spoiler, though, to give the actors and their director high praise for making this fierce and delicate dance of nerves so riveting.
Hawkins plays the main aggressor in this duet. An intellectually high-powered professor of ancient literature and a caring, busy single mom, her Corryn understandably demands more facts, and effects various strategies to get them.
Hawkins is as effective projecting false bonhomie (“This doesn’t have to be adversarial, does it?”) as she is indicting Heather for failing her son. Her sarcastic condescension can be bitterly funny. But underlying Corryn’s barely contained fury we glimpse a disturbing romanticism and a parental anguish no explanation could ease.
As a novice teacher, coping with crisis on the job and at home, Heather’s panic and reticence are written all over her pale, pinched face. She’s stonewalling and hiding something, both in self-defense and out of real sympathy. But what?
Olson’s multifaceted turn reels when Heather goes toe to toe with Corryn in reaction to something Gidion has written. The teacher displays her own brand of self-righteousness, but also an idealistic dedication to shielding innocence.
“Gidion’s Knot” makes for genuinely provocative theater. It doesn’t warm the heart or suggest remedies. It does, subliminally, argue for more empathetic, difficult communication between parent and child, child and teacher, parent and teacher — before the next tragedy strikes.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org