Chicago Theatre Review
A Puzzle With Only Two Solutions
Gideon’s Knot – Eclectic Full Body Theatre
There’s far too many mysterious, disturbing pieces dangling in this play to relate too much of the plot. Like an onion, slowly peeling away layer after layer from the core of this story, every incident from the immediate past, each truth and revelation revealed, sparks yet another detail of action. As this taut mystery unfolds, each character contributes another element to the tale of Gideon. From the very beginning of Johnna Adams’ well-crafted one-act drama, this award-winning playwright ignites our interest with numerous possibilities that come to a conclusion only in the play’s final moments.
The setting is a fifth grade classroom, bright and cheerful, filled with thought-provoking bulletin boards and displays of the students’ work. The room is empty when the lights come up, but soon Heather, a pretty young second-year teacher, enters tentatively with tears in her eyes. Clearly something traumatic has recently taken place, but we won’t know the full extent of what’s happened until later. Heather puts books and graded papers into the children’s desks, arranged unconventionally in pods of four, rather than in rows. She sits at her desk, trying to correct some of the students’ work, but finds herself continually distracted by her cell phone. What she’s hoping to see there is, again, not clear until near the final curtain.
Into the room enters Corryn, a wiry, middle-aged parent, searching for someone or something. She’s not specific enough for Heather to offer her directions other than to check in with Carol in the office, down the hall. Corryn finally returns, having learned, to her irritation, that her destination is actually this classroom and with this teacher. We can’t help but notice the woman’s tension, her terse dialogue and forced pleasantries that will gradually give way to outrage and violence.
We soon learn that this is 11-year-old Gideon’s mother. She’s incensed by the fact that her son had been suspended from school the previous week for some unknown incident. Corryn’s at school today, a few days late, to keep a scheduled parent-teacher-principal conference in order to discuss the matter. Some other horrific event, we discover, has taken place over the weekend and we assume this is the following Monday. However, students aren’t in class, for some reason. We also learn that Corryn is a professor of Medieval poetry at Northwestern University and that Heather left an unsatisfying career in marketing to enter the education field.
What transpires over the next 60 minutes is an unbelievably baffling puzzle that, we come to understand, may have only two possible solutions. Like Heather’s learning center about the Gordian Knot, prominently displayed in the corner of her classroom, the play’s heated discussion about Corryn’s son, Gideon, offered only two solutions.
The Gordian Knot, which becomes a metaphor for this play’s conflict, traces back to the days of Alexander the Great. Upon arriving at the capital city of Gordium, the Macedonian conqueror found a wagon whose yoke was tied in a series of perplexing, entangled knots. Alexander became obsessed with a desire to untie this rope, but ended up simply slicing the knots apart with his sword. Gideon’s own knotted, puzzling young life, we come to learn, is just as complex and baffling as Alexander’s knot. More cannot be said without revealing too much and thus spoiling the impact of this terrific play.
Directed with an obvious compassion for both characters, Katherine Siegel guides her production with true skill. She gradually builds the intensity of this chilling cryptogram with so much subtlety and realism, allowing the final moments to spring forth, shattering both her characters and shaking her audience to the very core. Josh Leeper has designed an authentic-looking fifth grade classroom setting and Jessica Fisher has stocked it with all the recognizable properties one expects to see in an elementary school.
Michelle Annette’s subtle, restrained portrayal of Heather is honest. She’s the epitome of the new classroom teacher. Ms. Annette has this educator down perfectly, to the tiniest movement and facial expression. Admirably able to keep her emotions in check, while still remaining professional, it’s clear that this pretty, young educator is struggling with several situations. She’s naturally affected by the parent’s sudden, unannounced arrival, with her antagonistic confrontation and many demands. Heather’s cowardly principal, it appears, has chosen not to respond to a request that she return to school to mediate this tense, unexpected parental conference. She’s enjoying a personal day, leaving Heather on her own to deal with the strained state of affairs. The teacher’s lack of experience with this kind of situation makes Heather especially vulnerable. Ms. Annette’s ability to convey so much with such control and delicacy is magnificent.
Julie Partyka has the more showy role as Corryn. As Gideon’s mother, and, we eventually learn, an equally educated woman, we expect a certain pattern of behavior and intellectual control. Theatergoers will be shocked when their expectations become rattled. Here is a woman attempting to cope with a succession of heart-stopping revelations, each one more horrifying than the last, and the worst of which we have yet to learn ourselves. However, no one will be prepared for Corryn’s violent reactions nor the berserk, unhinged behavior she exhibits. Ms. Partyka is a talented actress, with much previous stage experience, who believably conveys a woman trying to understand and cope with the unthinkable. She’s arresting and imposing in this role, especially in her physicality and emotional roller coaster ride.
Katherine Siegel’s incredibly riveting production of Johnna Adams’ gripping, realistic classroom drama is a must-see. It will stand as one of this company’s finest productions. There’s so much honesty and discovery to be relished in this mystery that slowly unfolds before our eyes. It’s like watching a chef slowly peel away the layers of an onion and, like this pungent vegetable, may bring tears to the eyes of every theatergoer.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 2-July 2 by Eclectic Full Body Theatre at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Athenaeum box office, by calling them at 773-935-6875 or by going to www.eclectic-theatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by going to www.theatreinchicago.com.