A mother attends a parent-teacher conference to discuss her fifth-grader, who was suspended for a week, but the the teacher doesn’t recall making the appointment … unless the mother is … oh, her.
That’s the first 20 minutes or so of the 80 minutes that make up Gidion’s Knot, a regional premiere now playing at The MAC. It’s a frustrating first quarter, with long, slow, wordless scenes and intentionally obtuse exposition. How can the teacher, Miss Clark (Leah Spillman), childless and new to the classroom not recall a conference set up only three days ago? Then again, when the mother, Corryn (Jenni Kirk) arrives in her class the first time, why doesn’t she just say her son’s name, or Miss Clark’s, and save us all the discomfort and mystery?
The answer is pretty simply, actually: Then the play would only be 62 minutes long, and the author, Johnna Adams, wouldn’t have been able to impress us with her stagecraft — her ability to pull a Mamet out of a hat. It’s a playwrighting gimmick, a first-act conundrum meant to draw us in but which only holds in sharp relief the incompleteness that infests the entire play.
Some of that incompleteness is intentional. Miss Clark and Corryn are both incomplete women, especially when it comes to children: The teacher without any of her own (she has a cat instead), and the single mother, not especially devoted to her only child but trying to make up for it when, alas, it’s too late. No wonder they don’t communicate in full thoughts or engage in sensible dialogue — they are both cut off in some ways, adrift in their work.
It turns out that the reason Miss Clark forgot about the meeting (one for which Corryn is 20 minutes late, a further indication of her lack of parental responsibility) is that she assumed it had been canceled — after all, the child in question, Gidion, killed himself over the weekend. What led to that? And how was it related to his suspension? More mysteries, more drawn-out explanations.
When the reasons are finally revealed — quite astonishingly, if melodramatically (more extended exposition, as if Adams were terrified her play would only last 38 minutes) — it’s a further disconnect for teacher and mom: Gidion was a troubled, Miss Clark says — brilliant says mom … but why can’t he be both?
Gidion’s Knot bulges with literary and mythic references (check out the title itself), and the points it raises are thoughtful and complex, but its weaknesses are just as apparent. “Want to get people on your side? Throw in a dead child!” Corryn hisses at Miss Clark about modern society, but that’s exactly what she’s doing (and what Adams is). A dead kid raises all sorts of troubling questions, and how can outsiders (Miss Clark, the audience) judge the emotional reaction of a distraught mother?
But that’s what the play invites us to do, and Corryn — fiercely played by Kirk, who’s matched with coolness by Spillman — falls short. (Her last name, it turns out, is Fell.) She’s a bundle of contradictions, who demands the participation of the school’s principal but gets angry at Miss Clark when she won’t engage in tit-for-tat sniping, who blames Miss Clark even though she was deaf to her own child’s pain, who wants to play “what’s my line?” guessing games but criticizes efforts at deflection. She’s also critic-proof, because who are we to say her irrationality isn’t justified?
And therein lines the heart of Gidion’s Knot — its unresolvability. All rules go out the window; like the Gordian Knot, it cannot be solved, it can only be destroyed and rebuilt. Sometimes there are no answers, just more questions.