Like any other genre of art and literature, theatre is not obliged to comfort and entertain us in the conventional sense, though it does need to hold our attention. It can be exasperating and provocative, while still being intriguing and compelling. Such is the case with Johnna Adams' drama, Gidion's Knot, a descent into volcanic disquietude, if ever there was one. Sometimes theatre needs to fracture our complacency, jostle our cozy beds, challenge our sense of security. All that being said, Gidion's Knot comes from such a bottomless well of aching and chaos, we feel as if we're poking our heads down the tiger's gullet.
Gidion's mother Corryn, keeps a parent-teacher appointment, though Gidion's teacher, Heather (Leah Spillman) assumes (as anyone might) that she will not be there. Almost immediately following his suspension, 11-year-old Gidion has committed suicide, mortifying faculty and student body alike. Under these appalling circumstances, Heather concludes that grief and mourning would eclipse any need to discuss something as relatively trivial as disciplinary action. Corryn's actions seem irrational, yet understandable. She needs answers (Gidion's despondency is a shock to her as well) so she confronts Heather, desperately needing to comprehend her son's motives. Needless to say, adult suicide often leaves us grappling for answers, but an 11-year-old boy? It seems beyond belief.
Heather is evasive as Corryn (Jenni Kirk) tries to interrogate her, but even as Gidion's situation is revealed, the details are confounding. Gidion was a not a discipline problem, nor was he a pariah. That is, not until he begins circulating a story he's written, probably inspired by the epic warrior poetry of ancient cultures. The story is a virtual catalog of atrocities, rape, mutilation, brandishing entrails on a broomstick, and the worst part is he references the names of actual teachers and other students. As Gidion's narrative unfolds, an intense (probably homoerotic) dynamic is evinced, between himself and one of his friends.
Convinced that showing Corryn the story will make the reasons for his suspension obvious, it backfires, and she denounces Heather and the principal et al, as Philistines. She points out the lyric passages of the piece, which admittedly, are there. But we also must bear in mind, Corryn teaches this very kind of literature to adults in college, though she has acquainted Gidion with it, from an early age. During the course of their dialectic, Heather dismisses Corryn's theory that her son was a tortured genius. Then we discover that Heather has been awaiting news from the veterinarian, regarding her elderly cat, who must be put down. Corryn lambasts and badgers Heather, for seeking tidy refuge in euthanizing her animal companion, without being present to ease her suffering.
You don't need a degree in psychoanalysis to grasp that Corryn is projecting culpability on Heather and the school, for ostracizing Gidion. On a more personal level, it's easy to see why Heather's predicament with her cat raises Corryn's hackles. She missed the chance to be there for her son, when he was in excruciating pain, and hasn't reached the point of exploring what she might have done, to prevent his irreversible act of despair. Perhaps nothing. One of the grueling aspects of Gidion's Knot is that no one saw his suicide coming. Who could imagine even an older child in this much pain, with so much resolve to end his life?
A curious point in this play (a piece awash in curiosities) is Ms. Adams' fierce insistence that we have no sympathy whatsoever for Gidion's mother, a character that we'd naturally be weeping for. She begins cordially enough, but Corryn is abrasive, frenetic, arrogant, and hostile. Yes, the circumstances make this completely understandable, and it's clear that Gidion's Knot is trying to raise some very difficult questions. In a post-Columbine society, we can imagine a child being suspended for much less, and yet we have to wonder if the school's solution truly took Gidion's welfare into account? We might ask ourselves if we, as a culture, are providing children with adequate tools to process the casual, pathological level of violence we are all exposed to on (at the very least) a daily basis?
The fact that Corryn, an adult, with her grown-up context for appreciating literature that addresses these complicated issues (battle as homophobia, degradation of the vanquished , oracular evisceration) would bring these verses to her son's bedtime ritual, muddies the waters considerably. It's admirable that Corryn tries to clarify these repugnant aspects of human behavior, but when she extols the brilliance of the Marquis de Sade, we have to question her judgment. We've all heard that de Sade was a genius in the abstract (by no less than Susan Sontag) but should a child (even a prodigy) be expected to wrestle with such perplexing riddles? Has society failed Gidion, or his mother, or both? Is Gidion (whom we never see) merely a construct or should we take the plot at face value?
After years of attending theatre, there is no doubt in my mind that Gidion's Knot is one of the most wrenching, astonishing, powerful experiences I've ever had. Leah Spillman and Jenni Kirk deserve special accolades for their absorbing, gripping performances in this merciless ordeal.
Kitchen Dog Theater presents Gidion's Knot, playing April 3rd -26th, 2014. 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75204. 214-953-1055. KitchenDogTheater.org