In "Gidion's Knot," the intriguingly tense new play from emerging writer Johnna Adams, a mother, Corryn, shows up at her son's classroom to attend a previously scheduled parent-teacher conference. Her arrival at the school is a surprise to the teacher, Heather, who had assumed that the meeting was off, being as the kid had recently been found dead.
Whatever else one might think about this play, or what transpires in director Joe Jahraus' production, there's no question that Amy J. Carle, who plays this grieving mother, is turning in a blistering piece of acting, one of the best of the season, and a breathtakingly broiling and unstintingly authentic performance rendered yet more intense by the close confines of Profiles Theatre's Alley Stage. Carle, an Equity actress who shows up often on TV these days, is another example of the benefits of Profiles' recent embrace of Equity contracts. As was the case with John Judd's appearance here earlier this season, Carle's work allows the loyal Profiles audience (an audience that knows shows here rarely are dull or predictable) to see some of Chicago's best actors, up close and (in this case) very, very personal.
"Gidion's Knot" is a play with some buzz — earlier this week, it was announced that Austin Pendleton would direct a separate production at the 59E59 Theater in New York. One can see why. It's hard for any writer not named David Mamet to pull off a one-set, real-time drama that starts out with two characters simmering with anger and confusion and only intensifies from there. But Adams mostly succeeds. In many ways, the play is about the clash of two cultures. Carle's Corryn is a liberal academic who has encouraged her son to express himself on paper and who has embraced the inherent violence that you can find in all kinds of literature, dating hundreds of years. But Heather, played by Laura Hooper, has to function in a very different environment — that of a classroom full of impressionable and potentially volatile adolescents. How can such complex forms of expression possibly survive in such a spot, given the nervousness teachers and administrators feel about students who might pose a danger to others or themselves?
In the best moments of this involving play, there's a very useful (and courageous) discussion of how our collective nervousness at what troubled students might do has stifled the imagination, especially the potentially violent imagination, of the young. If a school has a zero-tolerance policy in regard to anything that might be perceived as a threat to fellow students, how might a creative writer who happens to be a kid actually be able to make things up? He or she should restrict themselves to the nonviolent, you might say. But Adams is pointing out that great poets, novelists and thinkers rarely self-censor in such a way. Especially when they were young.
So "Gidion's Knot" is very much about how the violence of our current reality impinges on what you might call the imaginative rights of the young, imaginative rights that might function as a kind of safety valve against actual violence, against self or others. It's a very interesting debate, and one that will surely hit home with the parents of unpredictable tweens or teens. The play is on less sure ground when it comes to the perceptions of the teacher, who fails to understand the mother's position and who, the play seems to argue, does not seem to have the capacity to grasp parental grief, being herself a single woman.
That's a simplistic position, to say the least, and although Hooper works very hard here — and blinks with seemingly real terror at this woman in her classroom — she struggles with a script that does not entirely give her character a fair shake. Teachers are in a very difficult position here, and this two-hander needs a bit more balance and understanding of the young woman on the front lines.
Still, Jahraus' production is really very jolting and well worth a trip to the little caldron on North Broadway. The work, set in a suburban Chicago school, benefits from a deceptively detailed set design from Katie-Bell Springmann, who has created a duplication of a classroom so precise and well thought that I found myself staring at its walls, which, covered with papers and signs, keep on revealing new facets of the play, even as Carle's agonized character puts your heart in the throat at the mere contemplation of such grief.
"Gidion's Knot' understands one thing about school violence that many plays on this topic miss, and that's the way people's positions always change when anything involves their own kid. We are hard-wired that way.
When: Through March 9
Where: Profiles Theatre Alley Stage, 4147 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35 at 773-549-1815 or profilestheatre.org