This is a gripping, thought-provoking piece of theatre, brilliantly performed. I’m glad I went on a hunch; the picture on the flyer makes it look glib and gruesome, which it isn’t at all. The problem is, I can’t really say what it’s about, or I risk spoiling its denouement. But there’s a clue in the title: like the proverbial Gordian Knot, there’s a problem here that won’t be solved in any normal sort of way.
Johnna Adams’s script is insightful and suspenseful, and the two characters – fifth-grade teacher Miss Clarke, and the mother of the titular Gideon – are superbly interpreted by Lois Ewing and Trish Adair. Each is outwardly ordinary, yet together they characterise a whole universe of women of a certain age.
Mother Karen Fell’s take on life doesn’t ever coincide with advertising-executive-turned-primary-teacher Heather Clarke’s. They are worlds apart. A lecturer in classics, Fell’s laissez-faire attitude confronts the prejudice and conventional wisdom which are Clarke’s traits. Their conflict shows up modern day society’s dilemma as to what’s right and wrong, how kids’ creative self-expression is received – and how it can be misunderstood, even curtailed, in the name of protecting the majority.
When the two women meet in 11-year old Gideon’s classroom, we soon find out that bold action has already been taken, and the women are dealing with the fallout. Their conversation is tension-ridden, powerful verbal tennis; the actors’ timing is impeccable. You can’t look away. Yet, cleverly at the same time, an awful truth is revealed and slowly sinks in.
You feel the insidious impact of far-away events, like school shootings in America (inspiration for, but not the subject of, this play). In school, Clarke has no experience to show her how to face a classroom of enquiring minds; she doesn’t have children of her own, and has taught for only two years. Tellingly, her principal is absent from the meeting, leaving her to get on with it. So, scarily, “education” becomes learning to conform, to follow social mores or face the consequences.
Not only does Clarke have power over Gidion, as his teacher she is familiar with him, his friends and antics, in a way that Fell can never be. It makes you think. And playing Fell, Trish Adair personifies anxiety. Her performance is nothing short of stunning, as she chops and changes from angry invective to outwardly irrational behaviour to an inappropriate laughing fit to grief.
Afterwards, it’s impossible not to ponder important and universal questions raised and explored here. In the words of the American company QuestTheaterworks: it’s “…theater that makes you think, theater that makes you feel”.