The first few minutes of “Gidion’s Knot” promise a taut drama. In the Bridge Repertory Theater’s tightly directed production, playwright Johnna Adams immediately creates a sense of foreboding when a parent arrives in a classroom for an unscheduled conference with her son’s fifth-grade teacher. But just when it feels like up-to-the-minute topics of bullying, suicide, and school violence are going to get a dramatic treatment, Adams seems to lose interest and the play starts moving in increasingly unbelievable circles, finally winding up with a truly absurd focus on the teacher’s sick cat. (I kid you not.)
Director Karen MacDonald moves her two actors around the classroom set in a compelling cat-and-mouse style game. The teacher (Olivia D’Ambrosio) is nervous and antsy from the moment the play opens while the mother (Deb Martin) starts out cold and controlled before becoming crazy with grief. At one point, she grabs the teacher and for a moment we’re not sure if she will cradle or crush her. For her part, D’Ambrosio fairly shakes with uncertainty as a teacher determined not to take responsibility for the actions of one of her students, careful not to say anything that might implicate her without the principal’s presence (the principal never shows). The problem is that each woman keeps repeating her position without justifying it, so their conversations become less and less credible. Having written herself into a corner, Adams comes up with an ending that is insulting rather than cathartic.
It takes a full 30 minutes of this 75-minute play until we learn that Gidion, the subject of this parent-teacher conference, committed suicide after being suspended for writing a gory tale of violent revenge against his teachers. Was Gidion bullied or was he the bullier? Was a story in a notebook threatening enough to warrant a suspension? Was that humiliation what led to his suicide? Why is the conversation at this parent-teacher conference so elliptical?
A discussion of any of these questions might make interesting dialogue, but Adams leaves her characters clinging to lame points of view. Gidion’s mother, a college professor of literature, claims her son’s essay is a well-written saga in the tradition of the Greek myths the children have been studying (the classroom is decorated with their projects, and a bulletin board displays their reports). Rather than tell the mother that threatening teachers in any form is unacceptable, the teacher offers a bland response that she is responsible for the safety of all of her students. What could have been a powerful and illuminating debate devolves into a bad mommy versus a spineless teacher. Adams adds insult to injury by suggesting that because the teacher is single, she cares more about her diabetic cat than her students.
“Gidion’s Knot” misses the opportunity to explore the fraught relationships between parents and teachers in the light of heightened sensitivity around increased school violence. An important topic is reduced to shrill and shallow banter.