Performing Arts

‘Gidion’s Knot’: unnerving exercise in must-see theater

New Theatre’s Gidion’s Knot — wrenching, thought-provoking, shocking, visceral in ways no film can be — exemplifies why we spend time in dark rooms watching live people pretend to be people they’re not.

New Theatre’s reputation for quality is erratic. But every once in a while, it triumphs with an undeniable meld of talent, skill and craft to produce a work of art that illuminates the human condition.

Johnna Adams’ 2012 searing script initially sounds like an exploitative “ripped from the headlines” melodrama as a parent-teacher conference turns on a child’s suicide and bullying. But it digs far deeper. The play indicts mainstream society’s inability to deal with unconventional artistic souls and questions our ability to nurture children at all.

Just when you think you have the “sides” sorted out, the play turns your newly recalibrated sympathies inside out. And then does it again. Be warned: The material is unnerving enough that some audience members may be unable to see the rest of the play clearly. The arguments in the car going home will be spirited.

But director Ricky J. Martinez and cast members Christina Groom and Patrice DeGraff Arenas never flinch from investing the emotional integrity required by this intense 78-minute exorcism.

Corryn (Arenas) is the mother of fifth-grader Gidion, a precocious writer suspended by his teacher Heather (Groom), although the reason is initially unclear. When he brought home a note requesting a parent-teacher conference, Corryn set up the meeting. Then Gidion shot himself.

Three days later, Corryn doggedly shows up for that conference wanting answers. Both women are consumed with emotion — and each has crucial information the other doesn’t know.

Corryn is all suppressed anger, but disconcertingly absent overt grief. Heather is poleaxed by sorrow with exposed nerve-endings, but her anxiety is not rooted where we expect.

Adams takes half the play to get to the major turning point and she gives the actresses a limited emotional palette until then — making the proceedings seem a shade too long. But those raw emotions, intentionally reined in, are so close to exploding that you won’t dare check your watch.

Adams and Martinez courageously avoid a touchy-feely ending. A last revelation gives the work the roundness of two mirroring halves, but some may feel it’s a bit too convenient.

Martinez’s direction is the best we’ve seen from him in years. He paces the evening carefully, willing to let uncomfortable moments hang in the silence.

Groom has been the best-kept secret in South Florida theater for years. She has a tough role, sustaining a depth of anguish and keeping the audience mesmerized when all she can do for 45 minutes is depict someone suffering ceaseless jabs from Corryn, all the while communicating there is something she isn’t saying. But when Heather is allowed to cut loose, Groom unleashes the teacher’s confusion and anger.

Arenas exudes a scalpel-sharp intelligence, struggling to rein in her fury, which seeps out in unrelenting sarcasm. When Corryn finally implodes, Arenas rips the guts out of anyone watching.

Gidion’s Knot stands as an intense, unnerving exercise in must-see theater and a welcome achievement from New Theatre.