by: Alix Cohen
The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem solved only by cheating or “thinking outside the box.”
Elementary school teacher Heather Clark (Dara O’Brien) is clearly upset and trying to contain herself. When Gideon’s mom, Corryn (Laren Leiner), enters for a scheduled parent/teacher conference, Miss Clark is sour and dismissive, sure there’s been some mistake. A visit to the office proves Mrs. Fell is correct though not expected.
The women are oil and water. Clark has been teaching only two years after a career in advertising. She leads a quiet life with few complications. Fell, a single mother, is a hip, smart, articulate, college professor.
Eleven year-old Gideon Fell had been sent home suspended with a cryptic note. A school appointment was set. Corryn demands an explanation again and again, each time put off by her son’s literally blank-faced teacher. Miss Clark insists on waiting for the absent Principal. By the time it’s revealed that Gideon has committed suicide, we’re as frustrated as the angry, grieving mother. No school representative had clarified the reason for suspension or cancelled the meeting. The Principal never shows up.
Corryn is convinced Miss Clark hated her boy, “He hated you,” and blames her. Every child in the school will be writing a sympathy card. 220 cards. “We wanted to help them express their feelings,” says Miss Clark. “Fine, YOU collect those cards, then take them home and burn them,” Corryn retorts.
Gideon’s is a complicated story. The immensely precocious child had written a viscerally horrific piece describing the maim, rape, and evisceration of teachers and students during a war. (Listening to it read aloud is bone chilling.) He also referred to the rape of a first grader “before the war” by his best friend. Then, there’s the “faggot” posting by said friend on Gideon’s Facebook page.
Miss Clark and Corryn, whose characters unpeel like onions, see both the written and larger tale with completely different eyes. The teacher feels Gideon was sick, aberrant; his mother calls him an allegorical poet. Fireworks ensue. We learn details about Gideon’s school life, but not the truth. It’s as if every attempt to untangle the situation creates a stronger knot. (Miss Clark’s distress has nothing to do with the incident.)
This is an extremely powerful piece of writing. Though it’s difficult to believe one so young could’ve written the myth in question, style is not at issue. Among parents and educators, a debate would ignite.
Karen Leiner is riveting as Corryn. Alternately piercing the air with words and attempting, in measured tone, to discover just WHO this presumed facilitator of the death of her son IS, the actress embodies intelligence, cultural awareness, passion, regret and misery. Leiner is never less than credible despite metaphoric shadows of Greek tragedy. She hauls us along every step of the discovery process. We feel heat and recoil at outcry. Every gesture and stride emotionally fits. A multidimensional portrayal of terrific commitment and finesse.
I had almost constant trouble with Dara O’Brien’s Heather Clark. The actress appears to be a void through much of this play. It’s as if she’s in a fog. Though I understand the character is living an almost insensible life, she doesn’t show confusion, disagreement, annoyance or, in fact, anything moderately human. At no point do we see her thinking. Reaction comes so slowly the woman seems drunk. I found her unbelievable.
Direction by Austen Pendleton is reflected by the players. While Leiner is wonderful, O’Brien never weighs in. Staging is good except for several avoidable instances when the audience faces a back.
*Photos: Carol Rosegg
Gideon’s Knot by Johnna Adams
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Featuring Karen Leiner, Dara O’Brien
59 East 59th Street
Through March 10