‘Gidion’s Knot’ at Profiles: Answers hit hard when mother seeks cause of child’s suicide
By Lawrence B. Johnson
While it isn’t exactly a monodrama, Johnna Adams’ play “Gidion’s Knot,” about a mother looking for answers after her fifth-grade son kills himself, is a provocatively detailed – and less than flattering — portrait of the mom, with the only other character, the boy’s teacher, serving essentially as interlocutor. And Amy J. Carle’s performance at Profiles Theatre as the self-absorbed, reluctantly self-questioning mother is wrought with painful precision.
Corryn, the child’s mother and a literature professor whose specialty is ancient poetry, shows up at a classroom occupied only by the teacher, Heather (Laura Hooper), to keep an appointment made before the death of her son Gidion. The teacher has summoned Corryn to discuss Gidion’s recent, still-unexplained suspension from school. But in light of the boy’s suicide, Heather does not expect Corryn to keep the appointment and is amazed – and unprepared – to see her.
And so, with both teacher and mother off balance, begins what amounts to an inquest. Why did this boy kill himself, what were the circumstances that might have provoked so desperate an act and, of course, who’s to blame?
Director Joe Jahraus keeps the two actors in kinetic contact, circling and measuring, testing and striking. It’s a quick, heady hour and a half. And from Carle, in this near-monodrama, unfolds a gritty, super-sized performance to be long remembered.
A product of DePaul University and Hunter College, playwright Johnna Adams received a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Citation in 2013 for “Gidion’s Knot,” which was published in its entirety in the December 2012 edition of American Theatre magazine. A dozen regional productions of the play are planned around the U.S. this season.
Adams’ searing, sardonic and tightly wound Corryn is a piece of work, and Carle shows us a woman who, though somewhat dazed by circumstances, remains instinctively domineering. This mom with a swagger is a highly specialized literary expert who does not suffer fools gladly and who spews rasping sarcasm, grandly and comprehensively, like some academic Vesuvius. It is the most transparent of defense mechanisms, the habitual bullying practiced by a woman who has effectively isolated herself, one who has time for nothing and no one – perhaps not even her late son – except her scholarly pursuits.
As the teacher suddenly confronted by so formidable an interloper, Hooper initially plays the mouse, quiet and calculating, to Carle’s lioness. And even as the teacher begins to share vital pieces of information with this grande dame, indeed even as she calls the mother out for perhaps vanishing into the insular orb of academics, Hooper keeps her performance muted, her posture cautious and deferential.
While there is an intrinsic reason for that deference, which we don’t discover until rather late in the play, a bit more attitude and inflection from Hooper surely would provide for a more spirited and engaging contest – for it is nothing less than a challenge of wills – between teacher and mother.
Carle’s imperious Corryn, on the other hand, needs only to be fed her setup lines to fly off on another tangent of rebuke and accusation, usually bestowed with palpable contempt and condescension.
And yet, all the bluster only sharpens the question: Whom is this high priestess kidding? Inevitably, Corryn’s shell shatters and she is exposed in the full measure of her vulnerability – albeit in a fulsome admonition directed at the astonished teacher. Carle delivers this confession-as-caution as if the guilt-ridden mother’s protective armor were still intact. It’s a remarkable moment, at once cataclysmic and fascinating.
Thus the posturing mother endures a swift, unnerving, transformative plunge into the terrifying darkness of her own heart. Corryn learns, perforce, more than she can bear to know about herself. What is so clear and credible in Carle’s portrayal is the depth of the woman’s resistance to self-knowledge: In the end, when she has cobbled the shards of her pride back into a semblance of the mother who strode into her dead son’s classroom, she once more lashes out the teacher. This time, the gesture has the hollow ring of a revealed lie.
Turning the tiny arena of Profiles’ Alley Theatre into a fifth-grade room, designer Katie-Bell Springmann has festooned walls and floor with the posters, papers, desks and all the other accoutrements of a place where 10-year-old kids convene to learn, discover themselves, make friends – and enemies.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Interview with playwright Johnna Adams: Read it here
- Preview of Profiles Theatre’s complete 2013-14 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com