The clues to untangling Gidion's Knot are there from the get-go. A fifth-grade classroom, packed with colorful posters of the students' current projects, shows the gods of ancient Greece tacked up on the wall, joined by a Buddha and several Hindu deities. While discussing this, the teacher, Ms. Clark, asks a visiting parent, Corryn Fell, who she believes in.
"Shiva," Corryn replies.
Indeed, Corryn arrives like an avenging angel in Pillsbury House Theatre's production of this intense, dark, and often perceptive play. She has a reason to be aggrieved. She has come in for a parent-teacher conference for her suspended son — a son who, we quickly find out, committed suicide over the weekend.
Pillsbury House Theatre
3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
Through March 23; 612-825-0459
Corryn is churning with questions. Why was her son suspended? Why was he allegedly involved in a fight? Did all of this trigger his suicide?
The two spar for more than an hour, giving the two actors, Laura Esping as Ms. Clark and Aditi Kapil as Corryn, a challenging platform on which to thrive. Johnna Adams's script provides them both a chance to create characters with real depth and plenty of rough edges to create friction. Ms. Clark is older, but has only been a teacher for a short time. The usual troubles of elementary school are already more than she can handle, and now she grapples with the emotional fallout of the death of one of her students. Corryn is a single mother, who — in a rather unsurprising twist — turns out to be a teacher as well. In her case, she is a professor of ancient poetry at Northwestern. Wracked by grief, she is searching for answers.
Those answers are slow in coming. We don't get to the heart of the matter until about midway through the 75-minute one-act. The incident that got Gidion suspended certainly was explosive, but Corryn (and the playwright) get sidetracked on a rant about freedom of speech and the Marquis de Sade and frustratingly leave other issues (such as abuse and graphic descriptions of sexual assault) on the table. Though, to the playwright's credit, she does build a full vision of the unseen third main character, Gidion, a bright and talented child. His tragic decision to end his own life is palpable as we learn more about the troubled 11-year-old.
There is some ambiguity here in our two on-stage characters, but that does not translate to the kind of nuance the circumstances demand. Both Corryn and Ms. Clark have been rocked by a devastating event, so the emotions are raw and close to the surface. But while Corryn conveys plenty of this, Ms. Clark plays it closer to the vest. There are moments screaming for her side of the story — a perspective that just doesn't come.
That doesn't mean the two performers don't make the best of what they have here. The little pauses that Esping builds into her lines, the tough posture of Kapil, and a myriad of other little touches push the performances far beyond what is scripted. Together with director Noel Raymond and set designer Joseph Stanley, who build a real, breathing world for our characters to inhabit, Esping and Kapil bring this tragedy to life.
One display of student work on the classroom wall shows us the Gordian Knot. We know how Alexander the Great solved the problem. Gidion's solution was even more violent, and one that will haunt everyone involved for the rest of their lives.