Fight night: Unraveling ‘Gidion’s Knot’

Boom! Third Rail's new two-hander is like a boxing match in a fifth-grade classroom.

Whatever else a two-hander play happens to be about, it’s almost always about a fight. It could, of course, be about two people united in blissful harmony, but then it wouldn’t be a play, because plays imply action, and action implies conflict.

So let’s place Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ intermissionless hour-and-a-half drama pitting a fifth-grade teacher against an upset mother, inside a metaphorical boxing ring. The fighters land lots of blows, parry quite a few, and show off some fancy footwork. Something primal’s going on, an intellectual bloodlust that gets in your nostrils and stimulates your lower brain. Sock it to her!

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Amy Newman as Heather, the teacher, and Dana Green as Corryn, the mom, are good fighters in Third Rail Rep’s new production of Adams’ play, which debuted in 2012 and is a hot property right now on the resident-theater circuit. It’s a pleasure to watch them move around the boxing ring, which at the intimate CoHo Theatre, where Third Rail’s production is being mounted, consists of a brightly decorated schoolroom complete with desks, board displays (the class has been studying ancient mythologies), inspirational statements and pinned-up papers: scenic designer Kristeen Crosser makes you feel as if you’ve walked straight into an after-school parent/teacher conference. Green and Newman are good tacticians, sweet scientists of the acting ring. I admire the skills they and director Michael O’Connell reveal as the fight goes on, especially the way they use long beats, Pinter-like pauses, to ratchet the suspense and play up the emotional undercurrents of what swiftly becomes a horrendously uncomfortable encounter. The writer and performers are adept at turning up the heat and delivering a chill.

As Newman slumps in a chair behind the teacher’s desk and Green prowls the room like a lioness stalking prey, it quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary chat designed to help get a student over a minor instructional bump. Heather has suspended Gidion, Corryn’s son, for five days, and naturally, Corryn wants to know what’s going on. But it’s not so simple. Gidion’s Knot is built on a series of revelations, and while I don’t intend to give away the plot, it’s almost impossible to discuss the play without talking about the big revelation: after being suspended, Gidion comes home, goes out to the gun rack in the garage, and kills himself. So, no: this is not about shooting spitwads or making wisecracks while other kids are trying to talk.

What is it about, then? Partly it’s about educational philosophy: standardization and an emphasis on “socializing,” or getting along; as opposed to recognizing differences and encouraging individual exploration. On a broader scale it’s about the furious beauty of the creative spark, and the frightening price that imagination on a grand scale can exact. Finally, it’s about a fundamental clash of world views: safety and conformity versus danger and contrarian expression. It’s not quite Apollo versus Dionysus, and not really science versus art, because great science can be frightening in the same way that great art can be. There are bits and pieces about the gripping power of belief: the teacher believes in nothing, particularly; the parent believes in Shiva. In the midst of the play the dead boy, bullied and ostracized Jake, drops a bomb, a story of awful and violent beauty, that illustrates the play’s great philosophical divide. Gidion’s Knot offers enough ripples of ideas to keep a conversation going deep into the night. In a way it’s about the power of art, not so much as a civilizing or ennobling exercise, but as a doorway to the raw and sometimes destructive power of the universe. Is it a surprise that our schools, which are so focused on shaping and controlling behavior and thought, are reluctant to open such a dangerous door?

But I find it a hard play to warm up to, for a couple of reasons. First, and less important: on a practical level, I find it hard to believe that a parent/teacher conference would ever be carried out under these circumstances. The school and its lawyers would’ve taken steps before it reached this point. Allow Adams some dramatic license and let this one go. Accuracy is important to a drama, but negotiable. It’s a niggle, not a serious objection.

More profoundly, this just isn’t a fair fight. Poor Heather, the teacher, is out of her weight class here. Adams is like a fight promoter throwing Willie Pep into the ring against Muhammad Ali. Pep was a great fighter, but he was a flyweight. After a while it’s not a sporting event, it’s a massacre. Adams seems to want to make a point about the profundity of the imagination and its superiority to narrow methodical thinking. Corryn gets all the good lines, raining scorn on Heather’s inhibited little mind. And maybe Adams is right. I happen to think our schools are organized on an outmoded 19th century factory system and could use a serious jolt of reimagination. But if you want to win a true debate rather than just an argument, you need a serious competitor who can make the best case for the other side. Adams doesn’t let Heather do that. Instead, the teacher simply withers under the storm of Corryn’s noble rage. And I end up thinking the fight’s been rigged.

You might disagree. Certainly the production’s well-shaped, and both actors are very good in the clinches. The show carries a visceral charge, and that counts for a lot. But wouldn’t it be better if we were watching Frazier and Ali?

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Third Rail’s Gidion’s Knot continues through March 15 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information is here.

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