Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Million Dollar Quartet
The plot plays out in real time and begins in Heather's classroom one afternoon where she is interrupted by the arrival of Corryn, who is there for the parent/teacher conference that was set up a few days before as a follow up requirement of Corryn's son being expelled from Heather's class, and from the school, for five days. At first the confusion between the two women, due to Heather's misunderstanding that Corryn would still want to have the meeting since the boy, Gidion, had committed suicide just days before and shortly after being expelled, turns to rage, pain and heartache as the truth behind the expulsion and the events and facts that led up to it are revealed. As Corryn and Heather spar and pace around the classroom like two fighters going for the jugular, the question they keep dancing around is: Was Gidion just a creative, "different" boy who was being bullied, or someone who used his well-written prose as a way to bully those around him? The fact that the women "bully" each other as well, with their words, accusations and blame, isn't lost.
Adams has written an interesting drama with two fairly well-defined characters. She also poses pertinent and timely questions concerning bullying, in physical, verbal and cyber forms, as well as what the role of a teacher is verses a parent, and what constitutes freedom of expression in the form of an author's words verses writing that is creative, detailed, and also shocking and that could potentially be a catalyst for the author to incite violence in real life. The drawback to the play is that, while the dialogue is realistic, Adams gives Corryn the better of the arguments and paints Heather as an intelligent though mostly quiet and mousey woman, so the debate never feels truly fair, even though I believe most of the audience will initially side with Heather, since Corryn comes across at the start mostly as a crazed woman looking for a fight. Adams also doesn't reveal all of the pertinent information to explain what exactly made Gidion kill himself, so the audience cannot make a clear decision as to which side of the debate to stand on.
Also, for a 75-minute one act play, the facts take a very long time to be revealed, which makes the earlier part of the drama seem padded. Corryn comments toward the beginning of the play that she just wants to know what happened and why her son was expelled. The fact that she and we never truly get all of those answers, and the ones that we do get take a while to come, is slightly frustrating. Though, that might be Adams' point, to not give us all of the details, since they aren't completely known to either Heather or Corryn, as a way to incite discussion on the topics the play addresses. But since the play is written as a form of a mystery, where a death happened and clues are given out as to the motive and rational for the death, it just seems strange not to have the truths and facts be more detailed and pronounced.
Director Tracy Liz Miller and her cast of Alison Campbell and Shari Watts, as Heather and Corryn, respectively, do well to portray the weight these women feel concerning the guilt and pain that the secrets and truths involve and how it almost consumes both characters. Both come across as dynamic and intelligent women who are good people just trying to do what is right, they make choices and decisions that turn out to be bad.
Watts has the flashier of the parts and is a firecracker in her expressive words and facial expressions. Corryn says that she hasn't slept for 72 hours, and Watts' slightly disheveled look and frantic behavior are perfect in evoking this frazzled woman. It's also clear from Watts' solid line delivery that, while Corryn clearly believes in her son's right of self-expression for writing what he did, at first she blames Gidion's death on Heather's reaction for expelling her son and the aftermath of that decision. Yet we see in Watts' steady tone that Corryn also realizes deep down that she believes she could have been a better mother to Gidion and possibly stopped his death from happening. In Watts' superb performance, even though it's clear Corryn is still in denial of what happened, we know that this guilt is something that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
Campbell does well to portray the level-headed nature of Heather. The discomfort she feels in initially having this conversation with Corryn, which is beautifully portrayed in the moments of silence, lets us see that Heather is processing what to say and how to respond to Corryn without it being confrontational and while staying within the limits of what she's allowed to say. It is a straightforward, honest and well thought out portrayal.
Miller's direction draws us into the play and makes us intrigued to learn more. The title is a reference to the Gordian knot, a knot that is so intricate and tightly entangled that it's virtually impossible to untie. In Aaron Sheckler's impressive and sleek set design, we see papers on a bulletin board written by Heather's students about this famous knot, while Heather and Corryn attempt to untangle the threads that made up Gidion's knot that led to his expulsion and suicide.
"This doesn't have to be adversarial, does it?" are some of the first words Corryn says to Heather and which sets in motion the battle between these two women. While Stray Cat's production of this fairly recent drama is well done, I believe if Gidion's Knot is viewed as more of a character study of two women who are adversaries and who see the world differently, yet never really change their views even after confronted by the other woman's thoughts, instead as a play about the serious issue of school bullying or a mystery where the evidence solves the case, it will prove more powerful and satisfying.
Gidion's Knot, through March 24th, 2018 with performances at with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-227-1766 or by visiting straycattheatre.org.
Written by Johnna Adams
Cast: (in order of appearance)