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Tulis McCall in ‘At Your Service,’ Directed by Austin Pendleton

Tulis McCall, Pangea, At Your Service: Advice From a Woman Who Knows Better, Austin Pendleton

Tulis McCall at Pangea, ‘At Your Service: Advice From a Woman Who Knows Better,’ directed by Austin Pendleton (Betsyann Faiella)

Whenever Tulis McCall performs I make it a point to stop by and catch her show if I can. I primarily do this for the laughs and the uplift. Watching her top off her crowd work with original riffs and exquisite pacing and delivery, I receive a healing. I completely identify with her wisdom about sex, male machismo, the mirror, hating the “shocking” physicality of aging, and the irresponsibility and obliviousness of youth concerning aging. Her humor about the terrifying impact of being referred to as a “woman of a certain age” stings with truthful riot.

There should be more Tulis McCalls around. Indeed, let’s get real: Boomer women outnumber most generational female groups. And of course, the more hysteria (as in LMAO) we have to assist us with the aging process, the easier the medicinal truth goes down.

Tulis’ latest edition from the consciousness-raising joke-sphere is entitled At Your Service: Advice From a Woman Who Knows Better. It shone, as do all of her performances. On Monday, 3 December, Tulis came out with a drink in her hand and advised all of us to join her. And so we did. Pangea’s back-room features a Cabaret/Dinner Club. It serves a nifty menu and most everything alcoholic your heart may desire. So there we sat and laughed with Tulis about ourselves as once more she “let it rip!”

Tulis’ humor strikes with sublime prickliness. About getting older she quipped and questioned. What happened? Like all of us, first she did a few things here – and then she made some statements there. Then came a few other things over there. Then, all of a sudden, ARGH! She’s facing a number once deemed an impossibility!

Time and age don’t work in tandem. Mental oblivion and time work in tandem. And when something, some pressure, some stress, some blip crosses our path, the revelation of age comes upon us like a tree trunk crashing on our heads. We can never return to our youth. This reality, enough to send folks off a cliff or into a bottle of Wellbutrin, becomes the hammer in Tulis’ toolkit of life-bending hilarity. Better to watch a Tulis performance. The only side effect you’ll sustain is laughter, which is good for your well-being. Especially if you are a thirty-something with “the darkness” of aging approaching.

Austin Pendleton, noted actor, director, playwright, and teacher, directed the show. Under his guidance Tulis’ moments of annoyance at life’s regrets prickled with authenticity. Her emotions of hating what she sees in the mirror seemed more pronounced. And her steely deadpan delivery appeared measured, cool.

The bits throughout were great. Some stood out for me. She shared a story from her teenage years about taking a break from life, and the vitality of doing this often. A shattering moment occurred when she was a teenager. She left school one day with one of the “cool” ones, a teen whose enviable insouciance made her popular and well-liked. When they went to a hamburger joint and ordered, the teen shocked Tulis by ordering “fries and a Coke.” She took a break from the routine, the regular, the sacrosanct marriage of meat and potatoes. In going to the irregular, she refreshed herself. The amazed Tulis didn’t know the possibilities of such a “transgression” until her adventure with the cool girl. Then and there she learned the importance of stepping outside the routine and beyond the box.

Indeed, the idea enthralls. Take a break from running around. What can be gained from the accumulation of anything, including educational degrees (how many lawyers have found this out when they discover they hate their jobs?). Take a break from ambition if you can. Don’t go out and buy something when stressed. And those activities on to-do lists should be thrown out, she quipped, especially if one has yet to do them. They will always be present and turn up on another list. This entire segment wowed us because of its wisdom and the stupidity of us not “breaking away.”

Her sound advice resonates in New York City where everyone’s a climber. The fact remains that the just-around-the-corner prize may be snatched away at any moment by an irrefutable fact that no one easily acknowledges: Immortality isn’t the inevitability we think it is.

Tulis McCall, At Your Service: Advice From a Woman Who Knows Better, Austin Pendleton, Pangea

Tulis McCall at Pangea, ‘At Your Service: Advice From a Woman Who Knows Better,’ directed by Austin Pendleton (Betsyann Faiella)

This became funnier when she asked the lifted hands of those who knew they would die. Of course all hands went up. When she asked how many of us believed it, really? Well, there wasn’t an overwhelming response. For those who fear truth, Tulis has a knack of helping one wrap one’s mind around the ridiculousness of one’s own self-deceptions.

Death is a fascist despot. There is no countermanding him. Thus one must confront one’s own conceptualizations of this despot with courage. So when Tulis cha-chinged this on her subject list to riff about, her funny approach brought miles of laughter. Twerking a blip in pacing, and timing, Tulis walked Death into our consciousness. Then she personified him/her/it with drink in hand, pulling up a a beach chair and sitting next to her. It may be my faulty memory, but Death should come calling with champagne or a martini. However, perhaps it was because I reached the end of my drink that I thought Tulis imagined him with one, too.

In any case that witty personification slays the fear and terror of death’s association. Maybe it’s because I am chilled by the horrors of Death characterized as skulls, gruesome Scream masks, and animated skeletons. So imagining Death in a beach chair suited me fine. And what I loved even more was that Tulis gave Death marching orders. Not ready to go, yet!!! Neither am I. And neither is anyone else, I imagine. The next time fears of Death poke their heads around the corner and try to dominate, I will throw a beach ball at them and picture Tulis’ absurdist personification of Death sipping a gin and tonic.

For a humorous wit and wag, Tulis is no joke, serious about her comedy as all fine comedians should be. She’s won awards including the 2016 Best Standup Award for Are You Serious? – A Woman of a Certain Age Inquires and the 2015 Best Storytelling Script Award from United Solo.

There are only three times the word “awesome” can be used, she told us. Having multiple orgasms is one. She discussed how young people refer to “women of a certain age” as “dear,” like an epithet. She has the perfect solution for correcting the gun problems in our country. I absolutely doubled over with belly laughs as she “took us to the visuals.” Her riffs about mirrors add up to a time in the funhouse. Her observations about our lives being a numbers game ring with wisdom. Indeed, she has become my expert about how to do a Walkabout in our culture as “a woman of a certain age.” This includes an addendum about how we didn’t get there, though everyone else thinks we’re past it.

Tulis McCall’s show at Pangea directed by Austin Pendleton ended the same evening it began, after about an hour and one-half. She will be performing at various venues. Watch out for notifications. In this time of raging White House infirmities, take a Tulis McCall break. You’ll be happy you did.

Theater Review (NYC): ‘A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur,’ by Tennessee Williams, Starring Kristine Nielsen, Annette O’Toole, Jean Lichty

Jean Lihty, Annette O'Toole, Kristine Nielsen, Polly McKie, A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur, Austin Pendleton

(L to R): Jean Lichty, Annette O’Toole, Kristine Nielsen, Polly McKie in ‘A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur,’ directed by Austin Pendleton (Joan Marcus)

Tennessee Williams dramatized women’s quiet lives of desperation. Indeed, his characterizations ping  from the haunting, tragic-comedic melodies of emotion he experienced with his family growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. In A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur, directed with measured grace by Austin Pendleton, one of Williams’ last plays receives a sterling, masterful presentation. Assuredly, the excellent ensemble of actors provides the poignant atmospheric intensity.

Currently running at Theatre at St. Clement’s, the production deserves a visit for its adroit performances and direction. Pendleton’s nuanced and gradual unfolding of Williams’ dramatic climax at once captivates with its beauty, delicacy, and plaintiveness. Delivered with a less astute balance in shepherding the actors’ portrayals than Pendleton’s, Williams’ complicated play would not deliver the power and heart-break that this production evokes at the conclusion.

A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur,' Tennessee Williams, Austin Pendleton, Kristine Nielsen, Annette O'Toole, Jean Lichty, Polly McKie

(L to R): Kristine Nielsen, Jean Lichty, ‘A Lovely Sunday For Creve Couer,’ Tennessee Williams, directed by Austin Pendleton (Joan Marcus)

Throughout the play we witness three single women’s wants and desires. A fourth, who becomes a foil for the other three, provides the background theme which motivates them to desperation. Each longs for happiness away from her current day to day lower class existence in depression era St. Louis, Missouri. In order to achieve this happiness, they place their hopes in others to deliver it. Ultimately, the women deceive themselves. Clearly, they set themselves up for disappointment after disappointment.

At the opening we note that maternal, nurturing Bodey (Kristine Nielsen in a superb, layered, and profound rendering), chides Dorothea. With precision Jean Lichty portrays the teacher, a fading Southern belle from Tennessee. Lichty’s somewhat frivolous Dorothea spends her entire morning waiting upon Mr. Ralph Ellis’s phone call. Because Bodey is “deaf” and didn’t hear the phone ring when it did, we become persuaded by Dorothea’s view. Initially we believe her relationship with Ralph remains solidly founded. Meanwhile, Bodey prepares food for a lovely outing at Creve Coeur with her twin brother Buddy, anticipating that Dorothea will join them. She insists she will not, for Ralph Ellis has important information to tell her about their lives together.

Strikingly, we see that neither women really listens to the other as each drives forward to achieve their own goals. Dorothea yearns for Ralph, a principal who associates with the country club set. Because of her recent tryst with him, she anticipates that her charms have overwhelmed him romantically as she has been overwhelmed. The inevitability remains clear for her, though Bodey warns her against these notions.

Bodey’s reaction to Dotty’s relationship with Ellis appears questionable. We wonder at Bodey’s potential jealousy of “their love.” The feminine, sweet, pretty Dorothea surely will leave her and get married, a frightening prospect for Bodey. Indeed, Dotty believes that eventually, Ralph will spirit her into a well positioned marriage away from the squalid, spare lifestyle she leads teaching, and renting from Bodey. For her part Bodey, a spinster devoted to caring for others, least of all herself, has given up on her own prospects of marriage. Instead, she believes that her overweight, reliable, unromantic, hearty twin Buddy would be perfect for Dorothea.  And if they married, she would be the dependable aunt who would raise their brood and have a vital purpose in their family life.

Jean Lichty, Annette O'Toole, Kristine Nielsen, Polly McKie, Austin Pendleton, A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur

(L to R): Jean Lichty, Annette O’Toole, Kristine Nielsen in ‘A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur,’ directed by Austin Pendleton (Joan Marcus)

During the course of the play, two other spinsters join into this group of women who appear unloved and unwanted. Miss Gluck, a German neighbor who has lost her mother and who grieves incessantly. Most probably not only does she grieve the close relationship loss. But she probably grieves that she will be alone. Thus, she must give herself her own solace daily. Indeed, how much can Miss Gluck rely on the friendship of her neighbor Bodey with whom she communicates only in German? Polly McKie as the mournful Miss Gluck is humorous and believable. Thematically, the character portends what happens to women who do not marry well economically or congenially, or whose husbands abandon them to loneliness and despair.

Annette O'Toole, Polly McKie, A Lovely Sunday For Dreve Coeur, Austin Pendleton, Tennessee Williams, La Femme Theatre Productions

Annette O’Toole and Polly McKie in ‘A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur,’ directed by Austin Pendleton, written by Tennessee Williams, La Femme Theatre Productions (Joan Marcus)

Helena is the fourth spinster who intrudes into the lives of Bodey and Dotty. During the course of her visit, she suggests the monstrous end which awaits the unfortunate Miss Gluck. Incisively portrayed by Annette O’Toole, Helena represents the cruel and bitter archetype of the most miserable of the spinsters. These yearn to escape themselves and falling short, grow venomous and predatory toward other women. Arrogant, acerbic, biting she manipulates with sarcasm. And she bullies and demeans Bodey and Dotty with female cultural mores and the pretense of good breeding. In irony she implies that unless Dotty takes actions to lift herself into an upscale arrangement with her, she will fall into the same despair as Bodey. And with finality, poor Dotty will eventually become a social anathema, the greying, unwanted, depressive Miss Gluck.

As the day unfolds, we learn Helena, too, has wants. A fellow teacher in the same school, she intends for Dotty to be her roommate and share the expensive rent and utilities. Her concern for Dotty’s life path concludes with self-dealing. Her own. She covets the monthly expenses Dotty will hand to her. And she intends Dotty to partner up at their bridge games twice a week for companionship. When Dotty inquires whether the bridge will be mixed, we see the fullness of Dotty’s fear anguish of discouragement.

For Dotty, there is no hope without a man. She cannot define herself in any other terms. Nor can she settle for a kind of contentment or resignation as Bodey, Helena and even Miss Gluck have. For her it’s a man, or it’s the abyss. That her designs fall upon Ralph Ellis and certainly not the overweight, unappealing Buddy, who accompanies his sister to Creve Coeur, is her tragic misfortune.

Tennessee Williams’ ironies and humor seek a fine level in this satisfying and heartfelt production. Notably, the Rolling Stones anthem to humanity rings out loudly in this play’s themes of disappointment and finding one’s courage to move past despair. No, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want!” However, for some of the characters, especially the ones who nurture and look out for each other, they do “get what they need.” Perhaps. Indeed, they may even enjoy a lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur.

Kudos to the artistic team Harry Feiner (Scenic & Lighting Design), Beth Goldenberg (Costumes), Ryan Rumery (Sound Design & Original Music), and the other artists.

A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur presented by La Femme Theatre Productions runs without an intermission at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th St) until 21 October. Interestingly, the theater was founded by Tennessee William’s cousin Reverend Sidney Lanier. You may purchase tickets at LaFemmeTheatreProductions.org. 

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‘The Traveling Lady’ by Horton Foote, directed by Austin Pendleton

Larry Bull, Lynn Cohen, Geroge Morfogen, Traveling Lady, Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote

(L to R): Larry Bull, Lynn Cohen, George Morfogen in ‘Traveling Lady’ directed by Austin Pendleton at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Carole Rosegg)

The Traveling Lady by American treasure Horton Foote (Pultizer Prize and two-time Academy Award winner), is about the foibles of human nature, relationships, loss and the hope of love and new beginnings as a natural order of living. The production directed by Austin Pendleton with his usual insight, attentiveness to acting specificity and feel for “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em,” is currently being presented by La Femme Theatre Productions at The Cherry Lane Theatre. It boasts a very fine cast.

The Traveling Lady is an ensemble piece that requires on-point performances for the portrayals to cohere and present logically. Foote accomplishes his work steadfastly, brilliantly: every line builds on the other in his characterizations. And though his work appears simplistic, it is layered and profound with minimal belaboring. If one carefully attends to the themes and character notes, one understands that the outcome for his small-town personalities is inevitable. The beauty of Foote’s work and this production is that it is far from predictable. This is why much of Foote’s work, if executed with precision, as Pendleton does with the assistance of the fine ensemble and artistic creative team, is greatly satisfying in its representation of homely Americana.

Lynn Cohen, Karen Ziemba, Angelina Fiordellisi, Traveling Lady, Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre

(L to R): Lynn Cohen, Karen Ziemba, Angelina Fiordellisi in ‘Traveling Lady,’ directed by Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Foote’s plot arc for The Traveling Lady is developed with enough inherent tension so that one actually breathes a sigh of relief at the conclusion, as the characters move naturally toward their resolutions. As with many of his plays (i.e. Orphan’s Home Cycle), Foote lays out the rural dynamic of his setting as 1950, the small Texas town of Harrison.

In Harrison as in any rural town, daily life is routine and slow. The action moves with major town events: births, weddings, funerals. And Foote uses an earth shattering event, the death of Miss Kate, Henry Thomas’ mother, to be the catalyst for the movement of life, death and renewal for Foote’s protagonists.

It is Miss Kate’s funeral which brings Henry Thomas back to Harrison. It is Henry’s return to his hometown which brings his wife Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) and their daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow) to Harrison to be with him. Henry and Georgette are thrust into the matrix of characters who make neighborly visits to share the gossip at Clara Breedlove’s home. It is in revealing Henry’s and Georgette’s impulses and humanity that Foote’s themes of sorrow, regret, hope and forgiveness are relayed.

Karen Ziemba, Lynn Cohen, PJ Sosko, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jill Tanner, Traveling Lady, Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote, Austin Pendleton

(L to R): Karen Ziemba, Lynn Cohen, PJ Sosko, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jill Tanner in ‘The Traveling Lady’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

The neighborly matrix of townsfolk born and bred in Harrison include the elderly, “mentally slipping” Mrs. Mavis (a fabulous Lynn Cohen), Sitter Mavis (Karem Ziemba is her patient, loving daughter), Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen in too brief an appearance), Mrs. Tillman (the humorous Jill Tanner as the stalwart, religious, do-gooder), Henry Thomas (PJ Sosko is perfect as the heart-rending, regretful and angry Henry) and Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi is excellent as the kind, wise, earth-mother) whose home {ironically not far from the cemetery} and heart provide a respite and place of sustenance.

Two protagonists, one who was not raised in Harrison, and the other who was and plans to leave it are Georgette Thomas and Slim Murray. Harrison is a way station for Georgette Thomas who comes seeking husband Henry after he is released from the penitentiary for stabbing and nearly killing a man.

Larry Bull finely shapes his Slim with subdued inner beauty and humility. He breathes charisma, attractiveness and light in Slim’s soul as a quiet hero whose values and principles are decent and kind. I could feel every woman in the audience including myself ache for more such individuals like Slim (who is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Slim in Of Mice and Men). Slim, who has been a deputy, prefers working in the cotton industry and plans to head South to pursue what he knows best.

Jean Lichty, Korinne Tetlow, Angelina Fiordellisi, The Traveling Lady, The Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote, Austin Pendleton

(L to R): Jean Lichty, Korinne Tetlow, Angelina Fiordellisi in ‘The Traveling Lady,’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

As Henry’s loving, long-suffering, sweet, loyal wife Georgette, Jean Lighty is well cast, as is Korinne Tetlow who is exceptionally poised and captivating as her little daughter, Margaret Rose. Georgette and Margaret Rose are wanderers looking for rest and succor. Georgette hopes that her reunion with husband Henry will be successful and they will finally be able to live as a family. From the other characters, we discover that she has been loyal to Henry and would be most probably until “death do them part.” However, his actions are not worthy of her love and his inner weaknesses create the guilt that keeps him racing down the path of self-destruction. Despite this, Georgette may be willing to forgive him and continue if not for the welfare of Margaret Rose. These attributes of patience and loyalty form the core of who Georgette is. She reflects the time she lives in; she echoes the folkways of the Texas communities whose women “stand by their men.”

Foote has laid his groundwork for us to immediately empathize with mother and daughter. We learn they are not accepted because people where they attempt to live discover Henry’s background. Georgette’s father represents such attitudes. After Henry goes to the penitentiary, her father throws her out of the house. He refuses to accept his daughter’s marriage to Henry and ignores her when she sends him a picture of Margaret Rose.

Georgette has hidden Henry’s situation from Margaret Rose. For her daughter’s sake, instead of confronting realities about Henry, in her mind she has built up tremendous hope for a family reunion. She believes that Henry can only improve. Though both are ready for a renewal, it is not to come in the shape and form Georgette imagines.

Lynn Cohen, Jean Lichty, Larry Bull Karen Ziemba, The Traveling Lady, The Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote

(L to R): Lynn Cohen, Jean Lichty, Larry Bull, Karen Ziemba in ‘The Traveling Lady’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

When mother and daughter arrive at Clara Breedlove’s home, eventually Henry, as all the townsfolk most likely do, finds his way there. Clara Breedlove’s home is a fitting symbol; it is not only a hub for the townsfolk and in this case the travelers, it is also a place for the truth to be revealed and accepted without judgment or recrimination. The “Breedlove” last name is appropriately clever.

In her loyalty and principled soul, Georgette is the counterpart of Slim who lost his wife and was/still is devastated by the circumstances surrounding their relationship which he finally reveals to his sister Clara in a poignant scene. Foote has created sterling human beings in Slim and Georgette and indeed they are archetypes for what may be the best potential for contentment in relationships.

We are gratified that somehow throughout all the pain and suffering Georgette and Slim have endured. They are stolid individuals, unbowed by life’s hardships. Perhaps they will end up together to find some measure of happiness in the next chapter of their lives. With Foote, it is always a hopeful “perhaps.” Certainly, if Georgette remains with Henry, who is an alcoholic, disaster will follow for her and Margaret Rose.

The resolution of conflicts in Slim’s, Georgette’s and Henry’s lives occurs at Clara Breedlove’s.  Foote has staged the beginning of life transformation there in Clara’s homely place, perhaps the most appropriate of places for there to be the possibility of life affirmations.

This production is a gem. You will appreciate the strong performances by the ensemble and incisive direction by Austin Pendleton. The cast, the director and the creative team Harry Feiner (Scenic & Lighting Design), Theresa Squire (Costume Design), Ryan Rumery (Sound Design & Original Music) whose striking production values enhance throughout, effect a very fine presentation of Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady.

For performances and ticket information, go to  www.cherrylanetheatre.org; or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111; or stop by the box office at The Cherry Lane Theatre on 38 Commerce Street. The production has no intermission and runs until 16 July.

Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams. A Play About a Teacher, a Single Mom and Her Son.

L to R: Dara O'Brien and Karen Leiner in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

L to R: Dara O’Brien and Karen Leiner in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Humans are self-deceivers; they often avoid confronting painful truths. When/if their frauds lead to catastrophe, then they are forced to look at how their self-duplicity created the consequences. With self-deception, there is the inevitable manipulation of others and the abusive “passing the blame” of one’s hated flaws onto these victims who may or may not suspect the manipulator’s ulterior motives. If the victims are enablers, they accept the blame and help push the abuser into their catastrophe. Ideally, the sooner one confronts the horrific inner Gorgon of truth, the better. Confrontation leads to enlightenment and growth. Delay, brings stony emotions, obfuscations, and more lies, until there is collapse, self-destruction, or madness.

In her play Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams explores how a mother and a fifth grade teacher dance around the “truth” of an incident which involves Gidion who was in Heather Clark’s fifth grade public school class. The dance provokes mother Corryn (Karen Leiner), and teacher Heather (Dara O’Brien), to inadvertently lay bare their souls in an interesting power manipulation. Rather than confront their inner Gorgon, and help one another, they pity, judge, condemn, project, and appear cold-hearted: all acts of self-deception and obfuscation. As the play records their convolutions, we, the audience, try to unravel the mystery of what happened to Gidion and what is happening in the present between the two women. But our attempt to unravel the knots of lies and truths remains feeble. In a fog we wonder about the significance of what we are seeing and question if these characters will ever acknowledge their inner Gorgon, thus destroying its power over them.

Playwright Johnna Adams has contrived a complex, hyper-charged conundrum of a play. Directed with precision, insight and sensitivity by Austin Pendleton, Gidion’s Knot leaves one spinning about the characters’ manipulations and duplicities as it examines the issue of social and parental responsibility. I cannot envision many other directors who so aptly could have created an atmosphere to elicit the marvelous performances. Because of the team’s united efforts this amazing production thrills and provokes.

Dara O'Brien in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Dara O’Brien in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Pendleton’s talents adhere with the vivid, alive portrayals by actors Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien. Their creation is a continuous thrumming of palpable tension that keeps us engaged. Can the mysteries be solved given the complexities and needs of the characters?  Pendleton’s, Leiner’s and O’Brien’s masterful work illuminates the charades, blinding rationales, and subtle justifications the characters use to avoid their miserable inner truths. We recognize how Corryn’s and Heather’s self-deceptions have lead to catastrophe. Will these women see the light and help one another or resort to recriminations and judgements enabling and fomenting the inevitability of another disaster?

As the actors and director elucidate these points, the entanglements intensify. The more we attempt to extricate the truths, the more we are caught up in the characters’ rationalizations and self-fraud. We empathize because we are looking at ourselves. We realize that for them, there may be no way out except to live with an inner morass that will worsen. Unlike a Gordian Knot, an allusion aptly used by the playwright, the knot Gidion has created cannot be cut.

For the setting and backdrop Adams uses a conventional educational system and an atypical parent-teacher conference. Along the way she touches upon the issues of our present public educational system’s cultural assumptions about curriculum, appropriate behavior, and the responsibility of the parent, child, teacher, and system to produce learning. She also infers how these assumptions may run counter to the true nature of learning as art and how such learning prompts the finest art. Though parts of the play might appear to be contrived, (i.e. Gidion’s act, Corryn’s choice to put Gidion in a public school, the absence of communication between the school and parent), the playwright tries to smooth over the glitches with the characters’ logical explanations. Just at the point where one might find the contrivance an obstacle, Pendleton and the actors patch up the holes with brilliant performance art that is completely “in the moment.” We are swept up by the life we see and don’t give the contrivance much  thought.

L to R: Karen Leiner and Dara O'Brien in Gidion's Knot. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

L to R: Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien in Gidion’s Knot. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The playwright focuses Gidion’s Knot around Corryn’s interaction with Heather during the conference. When Corryn first enters the classroom, we believe she is misplaced because Ms. Heather Clark is shocked that she’s come. Corryn tells her she is there to discover the reasons why Gidion, a brilliant student, has been given a suspension by Ms. Clark. She wants to understand what happened to her son and figure out the motivations for his behaviors. We suspect there is more to her initially benign response because of Heather’s amazement at her presence. As Corryn probes Heather for answers, she becomes hostile and aggressive, and the underlying tensions between the parent and the teacher grow. Corryn’s acidic comments push Heather Clark into retreat mode with long periods of silent acquiescence as she takes in Corryn’s opprobrium. Throughout the exchanges we wonder who is being truthful, who is avoiding reality and why is the “bullying” necessary?

Karen Leiner in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Karen Leiner in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Little by little, the playwright unfolds the mysteries. We find out why Heather Clark is shocked to see Corryn in her classroom. However, this initial revelation is only the beginning. Gidion has left a knot to unravel about his behavior; we search for answers about the extent to which Corryn and Heather might have been culpable in effecting Gidion’s nullifying actions. The playwright adeptly guides the audience through the teacher’s and parent’s perspectives. From Corryn’s perspective we want to know more from Heather Clark. Surely, the teacher understands what happened to Gidion. We understand Corryn’s need to manipulate, browbeat, and abuse the truth from Heather. However, we know from Heather’s reticence that she is protecting someone and is keeping certain situations in her classroom confidential. Aligning with Heather’s professional perspective, then, she appears to be in the right. We assume that Corryn is too emotionally invested to see clearly and rationally. But who is Heather protecting? Heather? The principal? The children? Gidion? Corryn? And from what?

Because of the superb performances which ooze strain and inner turmoil, we yearn to understand and this suspense keeps our attention. As more of the complications are revealed, the less truth we know. The more vitriol Corryn expresses, the farther she moves from inner understanding of herself and her impact on her son. The more Heather Clark enables Corryn’s bitter “truth” seeking with her spare explanations, the less we understand about Gidion’s motivation and Heather’s part in it. Was Gidion’s suspension truly justified? Or was it an example of the public education system curtailing sensitivity, artistry, and creativity as suggested by Corryn? Does the letter that Corryn finds in Gidion’s desk reveal he has been damaged by classmates? Or is there a deeper, hidden truth which will have ramifications upon Corryn’s understanding of herself and her son?

Throughout the play we are riveted because we are off balance. We do not know who is “fronting” whom. By the conclusion we are uncertain and that is the best we can hope for because the characters are inscrutable. We should not be projecting our own failed, misplaced assumptions on them. The issues of where parental responsibility and social responsibility begin and end are not resolved. We do understand that the educational system presented by the playwright (somewhat contrived) is not ready to deal with who or what Gidion is, but then neither is Corryn. Lastly, there is Gidion. In fifth grade, he is past the age of accountability. To what extent does the final culpability rest with him?

Gidion’s Knot was performed at 59E59 Theaters in a limited engagement.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

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