'Gidion's Knot': American classroom as existential hell

World premiere CATF drama explores the dark side of education. Photo: Seth Freeman

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va., July 16, 2012 – Now in the midst of its current summer season, the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival is offering one of its most intellectually challenging seasons ever. That doesn’t mean that every one of the five plays in this year’s fest is headed for Broadway lights and a lock on the Tonys. But it does mean that there’s not a single genuinely dismal play on the 2012 CATF roster.

Let’s start our series of reviews with Johnna Adams’ short, moving, but very uncomfortable Gidion’s Knot, a one-act problem play in a familiar setting—a contemporary grade school classroom. As we focus in on the scene, we discover a very nervous teacher named Heather (Joey Parsons) who’s nervously pacing about her empty classroom, shuffling papers and waiting for—something. That something turns out to be an after-class parent teacher meeting with an equally nervous, imperious, somewhat official mom named Corryn (Robin Walsh).

Heather (Joey Parsons) and Corryn (Robin Walsh) are trapped in a Sartrian room without a door. (Photo credits: Seth Freeman.)

After a serious of uncomfortable starts, the plot gets down to the problem at hand. Corryn’s imaginative young son, Gidion, has been suspended from school for an infraction that may or may not have occurred. By the time the conference has reached its highly troubling conclusion, teachers, parents, school administrators, school kids, and society in general stand indicted of practically every imaginable sin under the sun, all with roots in the issues of harassment, bullying, and real or alleged inappropriate sexual advances or innuendo.

Gidion is an imperfect play. The opening scenes involve too many silences, too many acting “beats” that eat up clock and prolong the onset of the story. These uncomfortable silences are obviously intended to replicate the painful, careful silences that seem to be a part of urban life these days, so terrified are everyday citizens of doing or saying something, anything, that might bring underemployed lawyers out in droves and permanently destroy careers. But the long silences in this play go a bit beyond the intended conveyance of tension and nervousness. Picking things up a bit would do little to damage the intended mood.

Fortunately, Johnna Adam’s pair of characters prove to be more than interesting, each being troubled in her own special way. With zero support from her cowardly principal—she’s hiding behind lawyers who’ve counseled her to avoid attending any conference with Corryn—Heather is forced to confront tragedy alone, which brings her to the breaking point.

On the other hand, her adversary, Corryn, is a piece of work herself. She’s a college professor—a teacher, too—who’s loaded with hubris as well as condescension toward Heather who, after all, lacks the prestige conveyed by a university professorship with rank and tenure. Nonetheless, Corryn’s very imperiousness and self-importance places her squarely in the middle of the tragedy. Firmly embedded in the bizarre wonderland of academic theory—a disease that has corrupted and destroyed the humanities over the last thirty years—she’s unable to see how her allegedly enlightened views on interpersonal relationships may have contributed to her own son’s downfall.

Corryn (Robin Walsh) has more than a few things on her mind.

In the end, though, what Adams’ play really seems to be all about is the fear and intimidation that are part and parcel of modern society. In reality, a great majority of problems are soluble through candor, honesty, and civilized human interaction. That would certainly seem to be the case in the United States, where clarity and honesty at least used to be regarded as virtues.

But that’s just the problem. The constant threat of legal action in the most trivial of matters, coupled with today’s rampant epidemic of political correctness keep individuals from sorting out and perhaps even solving everyday problems before they get out of control.

Clearly that’s the problem that lies at the center of this play where academia at all levels is under indictment. Gidion’s school, and its attendant bureaucracy both prove to be the real if unseen villains in this play. Education doesn’t happen. Teachers can’t teach. And, if they attempt to impose even the slightest bit of discipline, they could arguably find themselves in front of a jury with no one but a public defender to defend them.

Playwright Johnna Adams.

Parents, on the other hand, often can’t get straight answers from the bureaucracy and strike out against it in ways unimaginable to previous generations.

Both Joey Parsons and Robin Walsh are superb in their portrayals of two very different characters. Constantly slipping into moments either of bluster or evasiveness, each is prevented by the bureaucracy, society, and each other from reaching out to the other and slouching toward some kind of resolution and personal redemption. You care about each character even as you get exasperated at their ineptitude.

Adams indicts a great many things in this play, but never really indulges in the kind of preachiness that can quickly bring a drama down. The play’s intellectual content is high, but it carries with it an academic stickiness that may give it an urban appeal while losing audiences outside of major cities where professional interaction remains considerably less fraught and operates on a more personal level.

Rating: ** (Two out of four stars.)

All CATF plays run through July 29, 2012. For tickets and information, visit the CATF website.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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