Thru April 6
Stages Repertory Theatre
3201 Allen Pkwy
Sometimes in life there are no bad guys, just good people who find themselves in bad situations and end up making bad choices. That’s the situation in playwright Johnna Adams’s Gidion’s Knot, which is making its regional premiere at Stages Repertory Theatre through April 6.
This layered, wrenching drama unfolds in near–real time (you can watch the clock on the wall of the set turn from 2:45 – 4:15 p.m.) and pits fifth-grade teacher Heather Clark (Bridget Beirne), who works in a suburban Chicago school, against Corryn Fell (Shelley Calene-Black) a professor of Medieval literature and the mother of 11-year-old Gidion, one of Clark’s students. As the play begins, Clark is surprised that Fell has kept their appointment for a parent-teacher conference, given that Gidion has recently committed suicide.
We slowly learn more about the reasons behind the boy’s death. The teacher struggles with the fact that she had suspended Gidion over what she perceived as a potential for violence, manifested in a paper Gidion wrote that told a futuristic tale of students taking over the school. It’s laced with descriptions of torture and killing, and accuses one student of raping another. (“He learned this in your house,” Clark tells his mother.) Fell weighs her belief in free self-expression against her own perceived maternal failures. “This was the one time I could’ve been the mother he needed and not just the one he got,” she laments. Along the way, the two women discuss whether the idea of childhood innocence is a Victorian construct; the responsibilities we place on teachers and schools; the problem of bullying; the cruelty of children; and how, no matter our beliefs, everything changes when it’s your child, your classroom, your life.
These are important distinctions and discussions, and in less capable hands Gidion’s Knot could easily have rendered Clark as a literal-minded cog in the school bureaucracy and Fell as a too-liberal professor and parent of a particularly special little snowflake whose voice has been silenced by those too stupid to understand his genius. Lucky for audiences, director Sally Edmundson, who last year brought us through the varied passions and subtleties of Stages’ The Language Archive, presents Adams’s work with a roiling intensity, like pot of water that simmers quietly on the stove until suddenly erupting in a boil. Edmundon’s nuanced direction ensures that we’re drawn in, not pushed away, by the difficult dilemma placed before us. Beirne plays Clark with anxious force, distracted by her own off-stage drama and trying to be sympathetic for Fell’s loss while remaining steadfast in her conviction of having done the right thing in suspending Gidion. As the mother, Calene-Black is all restrained passion, delivering a performance that reveals the whirring mind behind her cool, intellectual façade. Each moment finds her repeatedly drawing on some reservoir of inner strength, repeatedly finding solace in the medieval poetry she studies.
Liz Freese’s highly realistic classroom set pops with color: red chairs, yellow baskets, and a bulletin board covered with “Star Papers.” Beirne and Calene-Black spar, jab, and pace warily around the set, pushing and prodding at each other, neither ever quite winning the other over to her point of view. Everything that happens in Gidion’s Knot stems from these two women making bad decisions precisely because they are trying so hard to do the right thing. And that’s what makes them human.