“Gidion’s Knot” takes place from 2:45 to 4:15 p.m. on a Monday in early April of “the present year,” at an elementary school in an upscale Chicago suburb.
That this straightforward description conjures a certain dread says something about life in America after Columbine and Sandy Hook.
As Johnna Adams’s two-character play opens, fifth-grade teacher Heather Clark sits at her classroom desk grading papers when single mom Corryn Fell arrives for a scheduled parent-teacher conference. Heather is surprised that she showed up. Corryn says she wants to know why her son was suspended from school.
“It’s hard not to let what’s in the news these days make you go, ‘Oh God, I know what’s coming. Oh please, no,’ ” director Karen MacDonald says.
The play doesn’t go exactly where you think, but it’s difficult to say much more about “Gidion’s Knot” without spoilers. Suffice to say the Bridge Repertory Theater production, opening Thursday at the Boston Center for the Arts, tackles hot-button topics, including the toxic effects of bullying, the difficulty of knowing when a student is truly dangerous, and the limits of freedom of expression.
“It is brutally topical,” said Bridge Rep’s producing artistic director, Olivia D’Ambrosio. “Part of what drew me to it is that, while it’s brutally topical, it also transcends this time and place to invite discussion of these larger, timeless questions, like the nature of creative expression and the nature of childhood.”
D’Ambrosio plays Heather and Deb Martin is Corryn, but the play revolves around Corryn’s son Gidion, who is never seen.
“There is an ambiguity [Adams] keeps in the play. It’s about making judgments about people when we don’t actually know the details,” MacDonald says. “It is about something that a student wrote that is very disturbing to the teacher, and what do you do?”
A real-time two-hander on a single set might seem like the easiest of plays to produce, and it’s not entirely coincidence that Bridge Rep chose it to close out its first full season, following a large-scale period piece (“The Libertine”), a world premiere (“Not Jenny” by company literary manager MJ Halberstadt), and an erotically charged musical (“Hello Again”). But as the two women talk and argue, slowly revealing what has preceded their meeting, there’s an intimate balance of power in play that’s not so simple to sustain.
Adams’s script is unusual in that it includes many ellipses — “. . .” — each indicating a non-verbal response to the other character. Each ellipsis can be expressed as “a pause, a look, a movement, a silence, a smile” or several other things, she writes. The choice is up to the actors and director. And sometimes there are several ellipses in a row, indicating a silent back-and-forth between the two women.
“I think there’s one page where there are two lines and everything else is an ellipse,” MacDonald says. “It makes sense because of the nature of the play. These two women are extremely wary of one another, and there are times when they literally don’t know what to say to each other.”
“These women are in such an intense scenario that there are moments when it is not possible to speak,” D’Ambrosio says, but those wordless, fraught moments make it “an excellent text for an actor to be directing.”
“The way Karen approaches the text is so unbelievably specific. She so trusts the playwright to have left all of the clues we need to figure out what we’re doing,” D’Ambrosio says. “I’ve learned from her to just really, really look at the text one little sentence at a time, and how does this sentence lead to this sentence? What is the playwright telling us?”
MacDonald directs occasionally, but she is usually one of the city’s busier actresses. Not so much this season. She spent last August into March in New York as understudy to her old friend from the American Repertory Theater, Cherry Jones, as Amanda Wingfield in the Broadway run of “The Glass Menagerie,” which debuted at the ART in 2013. She says Jones, who has been nominated for a Tony for the role, lived up to her reputation of not missing shows, so that MacDonald only went on once, getting the call from Jones just before 3 p.m. on a Friday in February.
‘It’s hard not to let what’s in the news these days make you go, “Oh God, I know what’s coming. Oh please, no.” ’
“Our stage managers had already made arrangements, because she was feeling badly, to have a put-in rehearsal that day anyway,” MacDonald says, “to run some of the stuff you don’t get to run in understudy rehearsals, like costume changes, because you don’t get to wear them, and actually making entrances and exits in stage light.
“It was a really nice, big house, because it was Friday night, and it was fun. I had a good time,” she says. “The audience was aware that it was not Cherry Jones up there, and they were really enthusiastic and supportive, and at the end of the show it was pretty tremendous. It was a thrill, what can I say?”
When she returned to Boston, she caught up by seeing a few friends’ shows. She also returned to acting in a couple of readings for Israeli Stage and in a 10-minute play at the Boston Theater Marathon. By then she was already in rehearsals for “Gidion’s Knot.”
She met D’Ambrosio and most of the other Bridge Rep founders when they were cast in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” or “Coriolanus” in the summers of 2011 and 2012. After Bridge Rep debuted with “The Lover” in early 2013, MacDonald said she’d like to work with the company and was in the mood to direct. (MacDonald’s husband, David Remedios, is the show’s sound designer.)
Unlike most shows, where a play is chosen first and then cast through auditions, this time they settled on the two leads before they had chosen the play or even knew it would be a two-hander. D’Ambrosio had met Martin at callbacks for a Lyric Stage show a couple of years ago, and they ended up reading together. Neither one got a part, but they’ve wanted to work together ever since.
Now they’re taking a difficult emotional journey that D’Ambrosio and MacDonald say will be even more challenging for the audience.
When Heather reads Gidion’s writing aloud, MacDonald says, “It’s hard to read but harder to listen to. I don’t know how people will respond. Maybe with, ‘This is the world we live in now.’ ”Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.