The setup: The theme of bullying has been much in the news recently, so playwright Johnna Adams could not be more timely with a play that explores, in a way, how and why a fifth-grade student, Gidion, came to blow his brains out in the garage just before dinner on a Friday. Gidion's Knot, set in a public school in Lake Forest, an upscale suburb of Chicago, pits the bereaved mother against Gidion's female teacher in an a teacher/parent conference a few days later, on Monday afternoon. The execution: This full-length play takes place in one continuous scene, in 75 taut minutes, with no intermission. What this format requires is that the stakes be very high, that the characters grapple inventively with the issues, building on what has happened before, that there is a denouement with a thematically-relevant conclusion, and that the actors and director have the skill, talent and experience to hold our interest throughout. Stages Repertory Theatre has found the skilled actors and director, but playwright Adams has failed to provide a compelling script.
The stakes here are trivial, as the two women engage in debate, and the issue is who scores points - the tragic loss of Gidion remains the largely-undiscussed elephant in the room. The dialogue doesn't build, but simply begins again with a new topic, much like reading a page on Facebook; it is scattered, and the subjects often seem haphazard and irrelevant. And the play ends, to use T. S. Eliot's famous phrase, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Shelley Calene-Black plays the bereaved mother, but seemed less bereaved than I imagine she would be, with her son less than three days dead. She made the appointment for the conference before her son's death, after he returned home with the news that he had been suspended from school. The teacher is surprised that the mother kept the appointment, as was I.
Calene-Black finds and delivers well the mother's preferred mode of expression: irony, with a soupcon of malice. The mother attacks the teacher, often setting traps for her, and Calene-Black manages to deliver most of her lines plausibly, despite lack of coherent motivation. The most glaring exception is when the playwright compels her to get up on a metaphorical soapbox and declaim on literary theory, a would-be dramatic highlight that evoked laughter instead.
Bridget Bierne portrays the teacher, and gives a nuanced performance, capturing her stress and her dedication. The tension in the play is awaiting the arrival of the school superintendant, who never appears, for a reason delivered late in the play.
Nothing of any moment happens for the first two-thirds of the play - there's a clock onstage, so trust me on this - at which point the teacher pulls from a filing cabinet a piece of writing Gideon had penned, in which school teachers were disemboweled, and where he accuses another student, Jake, of repeatedly raping a first-grade student. The document was shown to other students, the cause for suspension, and led Jake to post slurs against Gidion on his facebook page. Gidion had arrived home with a bloody nose, presumably from Jake punching him.
Playwright Adams provides some ambiguities: the rape charge may be true, or it may be false; how Gidion would know about it is never explained. Gidion may be a latent homosexual, with a crush on Jake, who had been a former friend. We know that Gidion couldn't meet his mother's eyes, a sign of shame here, though Gidion's mother teaches classic poetry at a university, and is extremely broad-minded - Gidion might well anticipate acceptance, not rejection, if he were in fact gay.
The disappointing thing is that these themes are left unexplored. There is also a tangential reference to the school covering up a scandal, and to concern about litigation over Gidion's death.
Teens who self-identify as homosexual are five times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics online on April 18, 2011. The tortured angst of a confused, gay teenager well merits dramatic attention, but Adams has chosen not to give us this.
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The production has a brilliant set, fully detailed and amazingly colorful, thanks to scenic designer Liz Freeze and properties designer Jodi Bobrovsky. The costume design is by LA Clevenson, and the mother looks smart in a purplish knit coat over a black turtleneck, with brown slacks and stylish tan boots, though I thought a black armband of mourning would have been appropriate; I would even have welcomed more funereal garb. Beirne wore a purple/dark blue shirt and gray slacks, both inexplicably a size too small. Beirne is a handsome woman, and the tightness of her garments was strongly distracting - I can only imagine what it would do to the raging hormones of 11-year old males.
Stages Rep provides a valuable service in finding and presenting plays which have come to be widely-produced, as this one has. They all can't be winners, and the talented director Sally Edmundson has done all she could to breathe life into a poorly-crafted effort.
The verdict: Talented actors almost succeed in making sense of a highly implausible confrontation, in a new play riddled with inconsistencies and unmotivated behavior, and which only really begins 50 minutes after it opens.
Gidion's Knot continues through April 6, at Stages Rep, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, call 713-527-0123 or contact www.stagestheatre.com.