Gidion’s Knot

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

At the core of this inexorable and engrossing drama by Johnna Adams is a disturbing enigma: A fifth-grade boy named Gidion, suspended from school under suspicious circumstances, has shot himself in the head. Why? His imposing mother (played powerfully by Caroline Stefanie Clay) has come to her dead son’s classroom to meet with his mousy teacher (played sensitively by Katy Carkuff) and demand an answer.

As the mystery unfolds and the alarming back story is revealed, the mother’s grief and rage are not assuaged; they overwhelm the stage and our hearts with anguish. And we are witness to a modern tragedy that cracks wide open huge questions with unsettling lessons about how and what we teach kids.

Director Cristina Alicea’s sharp and searing vision is evident in every detail. She does show and tell with an acute eye and ear, and one emotional wallop after another.

The set by Scenic Designer Scott Hengen is a brilliant full-color flashback to grade school, with desks arranged neatly, a blackboard, and a cursive-script alphabet along the wall. At first glance this set seems too big for a two-character play. Turns out to barely contain the vast reach of what happens. On the floor, square green tiles that begin upstage right in an orderly checkerboard pattern gradually come apart and splay downstage left as if recoiling from regimentation.  Subtly the effect underscores one of the haunting themes of the play: that education can fail to save a troubled child simply by crushing that child’s imagination.

Lighting Designers Paul Frydrychowski and AnnMarie Castrigno create another brilliant effect during a passage when the teacher reads the mother a short story that Gidion wrote. It’s a piece of risky scripting because it goes on so long, page after page, but the payoff is profound. As the teacher steadily reads, the wash on the set gradually dims, and a projection appears across the upstage wall. It’s Gidion’s handwriting. Gidion’s words. The very words now filling our ears with horror and pity. The mise-en-scène—language and lighting as one—is chilling.

Special acclaim must be accorded Caroline Stefanie Clay’s extraordinary performance as the mother. It was as if the real-life character just walked in the door. Defending her deceased son with all the unconditional devotion and passion any child in trouble could ever wish for in a parent. Owning the stage with her voice and elocution and forceful grace. Not acting, just being. It was absolutely unforgettable.

Gidion’s Knot is for parents of school-age children, and for anyone who ever was such a child. Anyone who ever felt boxed in in school with no way out. It’s about an enigma—the title alludes to the myth of the Gordian Knot—but there’s no mystery at all why Gidion’s Knot must be seen: The play, this production, and these performances are a master class in thrilling and illuminating theater.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Gidion’s Knot plays through August 3, 2013 at Forum Theatre performing at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. Pay-what-you-want tickets are available an hour before every performance. Advance tickets may be purchased online.

Gidion’s Knot is a co-production with Next Stop Theatre Company and will play August 28 through September 14, 2014, at NextStop’s Industrial Strength Theatre – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or purchase online.

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