We have all become familiar with the phrase “Gordian Knot,” which has come to represent a complex or insurmountable problem. The phrase dates back to Alexander the Great, who, whether by cutting or unraveling the large knotted ball of rope, is said to have solved the problem of the Gordian Knot and fulfilled the prophecy of becoming a world leader.

Gidion’s Knot, by Johnna Adams of Chicago, is the 2018 season opener for the Bartlett Theater of Durham, now in its second season. Performing at the Durham Arts Council in downtown Durham, the Bartlett Theater brings this show to all-too-real life. The play, a two-person, set-stage, real-time structure, depicts the 90 minutes it takes for Corryn to find out just what happened on the day her son committed suicide.

A young boy of eleven, Gidion finds himself presented with a Gordian Knot. The problem he faces seems insurmountable to him; it brings him to suicide. His mother, Corryn (Lakeisha Coffey), knows only that the Friday afternoon of his death, he was suspended from his school and sent home with a note. On the way home, he was beaten. That evening, he took a gun from his garage and shot himself. In an effort to find out why, Corryn goes to his school to confront his teacher and find out what precipitated the suspension. It is this unexplained action, Corryn feels, which drove her son to suicide. She is going to find out why.

Gidion’s teacher Ms. Heather Clark (Shannon Malone) is woefully unprepared for Corryn’s arrival. She has spent the day in crisis mode, beginning the day with an assembly for all where a crisis counselor talked to the students. Heather is completely at a loss as to what she might say to Corryn, and for the first several minutes of their meeting, Heather simply stares at Corryn in helpless silence.

There are several characters that people the play without being in it. First is the school principal, who has taken today off as a “personal day,” she is so shaken by her student’s death. She has been cautioned by the board not to speak personally with Gidion’s mother; the board is fearful of a lawsuit in this case. There is Seneca, a classmate of Gidion’s, who sat across from him and passed him notes. She sports a nose ring, wears a padded bra, and would amuse herself in class by writing notes to Gidion or texting her friends on her cell phone. On Friday, she wrote a note to Gidion telling him that she believed him, and did not believe Jake. Jake, another classmate, is apparently the one who beat Gidion up on Friday. These three absent characters are crucial to the explanation of why Gidion is now dead.

These two very different women are the two most influential people in Gidion’s life. Heather has information that Corryn needs to hear, but prying it out of Heather proves to be far more difficult than Corryn imagined. In the battle that ensues between these two women, Heather is hopelessly outgunned.

Heather is older than Corryn, yet she has only been teaching for two years, having changed careers from one in marketing. Corryn, on the other hand, is a Literature Professor of Poetry at Northwestern University. She is highly intelligent, extremely well spoken, and is, in fact, much more generous to Heather than a mother might be under these circumstances. Nevertheless, she is determined to find out the reason behind her son’s suspension, and is willing, if necessary, to pry it out of Heather by the word. Heather is no equal at all in this discussion.

These two superb actresses, Malone and Coffey, made us feel that we were the proverbial flies on the wall, witnessing this exchange in the very classroom where Gidion was suspended for his “crime.” Coffey as Corryn was a tactician, analyzing the situation and changing her mode of attack as necessary. She was extremely calm and often cordial, but gave her character as much determination to get to the truth as a district attorney in a courtroom. Malone as Heather was very real and vulnerable in her showing of the teacher’s suffering and her burden in not feeling able to tell the truth.

Set designer Tab May has created a very real classroom for the play’s two adversaries, complete with desks, chairs, and a bulletin board that displays the story of the Gordian Knot. Guest director Bryan Conger has gotten the actresses to take full advantage of this set as they use it all to tell the story.

This examination of teaching and motherhood, and where the two meet and must coexist, is a direct assault on the norms of teaching young minds and how they are molded. This play may be summed up in one line delivered by Corryn, “You tried to fit him in a box of your own dimensions, and when he discovered that he couldn’t fit, he went home and put a bullet in his brain!”

The facts in this case are hard, and designed to be extreme, but the lesson needs to be taught. The teaching profession is difficult; it has, in fact, never been an easy profession. The molding of young minds is a great responsibility, and it is fraught with real danger nowadays, both for the teacher and the students. We in the United States are fortunate that, for the most part at least, we are blessed with talented and well-educated teachers who take these responsibilities very seriously. But it is the dual responsibility of parents and teachers to care first and foremost for the student, and this can only be done if there is open and frank communication.

Bartlett Theater focuses each of their four-play seasons on one playwright, performing two plays by that playwright, one play by a writer influenced by that playwright, and one by a writer who influenced the playwright. This season’s playwright is Annie Baker, who influenced Johnna Adams. Bartlett’s next presentation is by Eugene O’Neill, whom Baker has said was an influence on her. Bartlett will present A Moon for the Misbegotten. Bartlett then performs two plays by Annie Baker, The Aliens and The Flick.

Gidion’s Knot continues through Sunday, March 4. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.