There can be no easy answers in the aftermath of the death of a young child. Johnna Adams’ play “Gidion’s Knot,” which InterAct Theatre Company will present this month in its Philadelphia premiere, depicts the arguments and recriminations of a 10-year-old boy’s mother and his teacher. The two engage in the age-old debate between nature and nurture as they try to discover the reasons behind his tragic death.
“I was highly engaged by this play as soon as I read it,” says InterAct artistic director Seth Rozin, who will direct the play. “It’s a really compelling approach to some ideas that often don’t get as much play in the media: the conflict between nurturing individual creativity and self-expression versus conforming to standards that suit everybody equally. The values and the resulting downsides of both of those approaches are at the heart of this play.”
The two-woman drama unfolds in real time over the course of a tense 90-minute parent-teacher conference, making the casting of its two leads essential. Rozin chose Houston-based actress Alice Gatling for the boy’s mother and Philadelphia’s Karen Peakes as the teacher. “They fit the characters as written,” Rozin says, “but they’re also very different in their affects and qualities and wonderfully complement each other in this conflict. We read a lot of different actors together and this was the combination that was the most electric.”
InterAct has long prided itself on presenting politically engaged work, and the topics of both education and violence in the classroom are particularly relevant today. “Of course the issue of education, both locally and nationally, has been important for a long time,” Rozin says. “The additional attention to mental illness and creative self-expression as it relates to all these shootings at schools and so forth has also become very prominent in our minds. So even though we picked it with an awareness of that, we didn't realize how timely and relevant the play would be at this particular moment.”
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Despite that hot-button immediacy, however, Rozin insists that “Gidion’s Knot” sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from the company’s more didactic work, focusing its attention not on headlines but on characters. “It’s really a personal drama,” he explains, “set against the backdrop of a very large philosophical discussion about something that’s really important to everyone, which is the education of our young children. The political dimension of it is much subtler, as opposed to some of the plays we do that are overtly, aggressively political.”
Jan. 22-Feb. 9; previews Jan. 17-21
2030 Sansom St.