Bridge Rep Delivers Brilliant ‘Gidion’s Knot’ at the BCA (5 Stars)

‘Gidion’s Knot’ – Written by Johnna Adams; Directed by Karen MacDonald; Scenic Design by Esme Allen. Presented by the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St, Boston through June 22nd.

Midway through Bridge Rep’s riveting production of ‘Gidion’s Knot’, Corryn Fell, the emotionally fractured single mother whose 11-year old son Gidion has just committed suicide following a suspension from school, demands an explanation from the boy’s shell-shocked 5th grade teacher: “I came in here with a simple question,” she seethes. “What the hell happened?”

And while on the surface it is the question of a distraught mother trying to understand what triggered her son to take his own life, this brilliantly executed story slowly unravels to open the door to larger questions on bullying, artistic freedom, and parental and institutional responsibility. Thankfully, the playwright keeps the focus on the interaction between the play’s two characters in the wake of the immediate tragedy, and the intensity and pace of the production allows the audience to wait until after the lights come up to examine those larger questions.

As the play opens, we see visibly upset teacher Heather Clark (Olivia D’Ambrosio) sitting alone at her desk facing an empty classroom. She is fighting back tears when an unexpected knock comes on her door from a woman seeking the room where a planned parent-teacher conference will take place. Heather offers little help and coldly and bureaucratically sends her to the administrator’s office to find the room where she is supposed to meet the teacher. The thoroughly agitated Corryn (Deb Martin) then returns to the room and informs the horrified Heather that she is the mother of the deceased boy, and she is here for the scheduled meeting – just three days after his suicide. The posthumous discussion of the boy’s behavior and his relationship to his classmates begins, and the pieces of the puzzle are laid out for us to try and answer the not-so-simple question of “What the hell happened?”

We now live in a social and media environment where the immediate follow up to a report of a tragic event (from something as horrifying as the Sandy Hook school shooting to a local team’s playoff loss) is to find out “Who’s to blame?” and the story does go there ever so briefly. But the narrative is less about finger pointing than drawing a portrait of a creative but troubled adolescent and his relationship with the significant players in his world. In the brief “blame” scene, there is an attempt on the part of each of the characters to shift their own feelings of guilt for the role they may have played in Gidion’s death by painting a scathing psychological thumbnail sketch of the other, but the playwright quickly (and wisely) retreats from this thread and allows the well-developed details of the story to shape the audience’s conclusions. To reveal much more of the plotline would disclose too much, as the intricacies of this complex story need to be experienced rather than described.

This 75 minute one-act play is one that could easily have gone off the rails in less skilled hands, but the performers and director deliver a taut and seamless production. Director Karen McDonald’s pacing of the play is near perfect (as I presume it had to be to make this production really work) and Martin and D’Ambrosio are superb in their roles.

Deb Martin is disturbingly brilliant in the role of the grieving mother. As Corryn, she is a terrifying adversary for the beleaguered teacher, combining her imposing height (she appears to be about six feet tall) with a quiet seething rage and manic behaviors that appeared to be in place well before the death of her boy. She uses the whole space like a badly behaved child in a playroom, laying across tables, sitting in children’s desks and stomping menacingly about the classroom. There are scenes in this play where you may wonder why the teacher does not just flee the room in fear (particularly in one very physical scene), but she bravely stands her ground. D’Ambrosio is a worthy adversary for Martin, alternating between quiet terror, her sense of duty, and compassion for the mother and her boy as well as her remaining students. As Heather, she must walk a delicate line between the rigid protocol of her responsibility to the school system and her own bottled up anger, guilt and hurt over the tragedy, which she conveys painfully and beautifully, and most effectively through facial expressions and body language
rather than dialogue.

This is not a play about in-your-face confrontation, but instead a highly charged exchange between between two very hurt people, and it actually has some darkly funny moments and some touching scenes between the two characters. It is also the best drama that I have seen this year (along with the terrific “Imagining Madoff”), so it’s not to be missed. This is also the season-ending production of the inaugural season for the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, and I am really looking forward to next year’s offerings from this talented company. For more info, go to: