Review: In ‘Gidion’s Knot,’ the acting’s the thing

 Karen Peakes (left) as the teacher and Alice M. Gatling as the mother in InterAct Theatre Company's production of

Karen Peakes (left) as the teacher and Alice M. Gatling as the mother in InterAct Theatre Company's production of "Gidion's Knot." (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Raines/Plate 3)

If you’re a student of acting – literally or not – “Gidion’s Knot” at InterAct Theatre Company is an excellent place to study. The play’s a two-hander under the direction of Seth Rozin, InterAct’s leader, and I’m guessing there was plenty of give and take between Rozin and the two women on stage to arrive at the convincing and layered interpretations they give their troubled characters.

Alice M. Gatling, a Houston-based performer, portrays the mother of a fifth-grader who has killed himself after some sort of turmoil at school and on the way home. Karen Peakes, the Philadelphia actress, plays the boy’s teacher. The intense 90-minute one-act play by Johnna Adams, set in the teacher’s classroom, is a meeting between the two women. The mom, originally scheduled to talk with the teacher about her son’s five-day suspension, now wants to learn anything she can about why he’d been suspended, then went home and committed suicide.

 

Watching the two women deliver the ensuing interchange is like watching a predator circle a possible meal on a TV nature show. Sometimes, though, we’re not sure which one is which. Gatling’s black, single mom is clearly open to false presumptions made by the younger white teacher, whom she’s never met until now. Peakes, as the teacher, faces a situation that she never expected to handle and tries not to be on the defensive – plus, what would be the ramifications if she were completely candid about what she believed to be true?

This play is tough – you can figure that already – yet Gatling and Peakes are a revelation in the way they move, listen and react. They make “Gidion’s Knot” seem a far better play than it is by overcoming an unconvincing script, making their performances all the more triumphant.

The script itself is built on a sound premise, and I’ll bet it holds the attention of audiences most nights the way it did when I saw it after its opening – people were still, and focused on a wrenching situation playing out in front of them. But “Gidion’s Knot” fails to finesse certain weaknesses, especially when it considers mythology and writing, which come into play during this difficult classroom meeting. The characters in “Gidion’s Knot” never talk over the single-most important issue: At what point is a creative child of age 11 inappropriate? As a result, it appears that the script is built for maximum drama, at the expense of logic.

If I’m being vague about the actual details, it’s because I don’t want to reveal key twists in the play. Neither, however, does the playwright – a maddening fault of “Gidion’s Knot.” Her script hems and haws, milking an audience until the natural tension of the play turns into overstretched elastic. More than 30 minutes in, when the mother gets to the point of exactly what she wants from the teacher, a question hangs ominously over the stage: Why did she take so long to say it? And I wonder whether the answer hangs there, too, over the audience: No good reason at all.

In this play’s final shot – an exit line delivered by the mother – we learn that we may have been bamboozled for the last 20 minutes or so by an untrustworthy character who now utters words that abruptly counter everything she’s made clear about her own possible role in the suicide. It’s a line Gatling tosses off so well, I sat watching with great admiration. But not for the play.

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“Gidion’s Knot,” produced by InterAct Theatre Company, runs through Feb. 9 at the Adrienne Theatre, on Sanson Streete between 20th and 21st Streets. 215-568-8079 or www.interacttheatre.org.

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