Dallas — Few phrases have the ability to raise blood pressure like “Parent/Teacher Conference.”
The participants have only the student in common. No matter how civil the intention, the interaction has the potential to end up a contest of caring: Who loves more than whom? Like the courtroom or the hospital, the educational arena is so ripe with dramatic potential, a writer need only take their pick.
In Gidion’s Knot, onstage at Kitchen Dog Theater and directed by Tina Parker, playwright Johnna Adams takes us inside this predictably precarious scenario, but she can’t help piling on, straining credulity and upsetting the whole apple cart.
Rest assured, not one of those apples lands on the teacher’s desk—which sits at one end of one of the most meticulously executed sets in the Dallas area. Designer Clare Floyd Devries has endeavored to place the audience around two sides of an ultra-detailed fifth-grade classroom. Lighting Designer Aaron Johansen has obliged by hanging fluorescent lights that complete the primary school world with its characteristic unforgiving glare.
Sitting in the audience before the show, it looks exactly like they’ve ripped open a school. After the show, it feels like they did.
The teacher, Heather, (Leah Spillman) sits heavy hearted at a stack of papers, armed only with a cup of tea and a red pen. When a parent, Corryn, (Jenni Kirk) enters, she is directed back to the receptionist for guidance to the right room. These two don’t recognize each other because they haven’t met before. It takes some coming and going, awkward pauses and overly polite communication before they figure out that, in fact, this is the right room and the right teacher.
The whole opening comes across as clumsy, as director Parker allows the actresses to leave the playwright’s many ellipses unfulfilled. Just when you have reached your limit with the mistaken identity device (made obvious by virtue of it being a two-person play) the tone of the piece is obliterated.
The reason these two don’t know each other is simply because the parent didn’t come to open house. But the reason the teacher would overlook an appointment to discuss why the school has suspended a student is so big, it mustn’t be given away in a review.
It suffices to say that you’d forgive the teacher for being unprepared for the meeting. In hindsight, nothing could prepare her. What takes place onstage resembles a parent/teacher conference only in that it is a parent searching for answers, and the teacher happens to be present. It is intense, often one-sided and at one point so vulgar the Marquis de Sade would blush. If you are looking for theater that moves you, this is it. You just may not like the direction.
Jenni Kirk plays the mother with a swagger in her step to match the chip on her shoulder. She couldn’t be gunning for the teacher more clearly if she had a side arm. She may have reason, as she’s a literature professor and her son was suspended for something he wrote. But while Ms. Kirk deftly manages the attitude required for the attacks, she is less successful in portraying a vulnerability that would make all this vitriol vital. By the time the mother is edging up on some sort of self-knowledge, she’s almost lost our sympathy.
A contrast in the conversation is Leah Spillman’s tight-lipped teacher, her paucity of replies coming partially from professional discretion, but partially from the playwright’s pen. Whichever the reason, as Ms. Spillman builds her character out of blocks of silent headshakes, we can see that the walls are permeable, but only in one direction. The parent’s attacks get through, but almost nothing gets out. It’s enough unanswered abuse to make you concerned for the actress’ psychological well-being.
As the mother wears her down, what is clear is that the teacher does have all the stories about the complex how’s and why’s of her students’ lives. All, save one—the one that the mother wants. For the truth of that story, she’ll have to ask herself. We’re left with little confidence that she will.
By the end, the intention of the piece remains unclear. Despite tracing the mother’s discoveries, at the end she remains in a cage of anger. Could it be that teaching, whatever the benefits, is not worth the abuse? The playwright could have accomplished the same thing by holding up a teacher’s pay stub.
And then, we could have had a good laugh.