Jyl Kaneshiro as Corynn in "Gidion's Knot" by InnerMission Productions.
Jyl Kaneshiro as Corynn in “Gidion’s Knot” by InnerMission Productions.

By Pat Launer

If you’re physically or emotionally claustrophobic, this might not be the theatrical entertainment for you. The situation gets pretty intense in the two-hander in Diversionary’s intimate black box space.

InnerMission Productions thrives on intensity. They love to go deep and dark, and “Gidion’s Knot” is one of their best.

It’s a penetrating confrontation, a clash of attitudes, philosophies and personalities. All this in a parent-teacher conference.

Heather (Carla Nell), a middle-aged, newish teacher, didn’t expect the conference to occur. It’s been only 72 hours since she suspended Gidion from her 5th grade class, after which he went home and killed himself.

Corynn (Jyl Kaneshiro), a single mother, isn’t going to miss this meeting. She wants answers, and she wants to place blame. She’s aggressive, predatory, while Heather is reluctant, reticent. Corynn demands facts and explanations, but Heather discloses details slowly.

It seems that Gidion wrote an inflammatory, sexually violent essay about dismembering and disemboweling specific teachers in the school. He was passing it around, frightening and angering other students. Heather found his work to be shocking and troubling, and she sent home a note, expelling him for five days.

When, after much delay, she finally gets to see and hear the piece (she forces Heather to read it aloud), Corynn, a professor of Medieval literature, thinks it’s a brilliant and poetic effort. She insists that Heather was stifling his creativity.

Gidion also had a fraught relationship with another boy, which caused at least one classmate to take sides. The other boy later wrote something highly incendiary on Gidion’s Facebook page.

Corynn ultimately reveals that Gidion came home that day with a bloody nose, but she never found out why or what happened. She admits to having raised her son on the blood-soaked ancient poetry she read to him as bedtime stories.

So, was Gidion the bully, or the one being bullied?

The unraveling of his interior anguish proves as complex and impenetrable as the Gordian knot of legend that could not be disentangled. Can culpability and responsibility be unequivocally determined here? Neither parent nor teacher perceived the warning signs of severe emotional distress. Empathy and understanding are in short supply from both sides.

Ethics are tautly discussed. The vulnerability of children. Parenting and teaching competence. Issues of oversight and responsibility. The paranoia of current educational constrictions vs. freedom of speech and art. And on a grander scale, morality.

Johnna Adams’ 2012 war of wills is a far cry from her creepy, sci-fi drama, “Skinless,” that received its first full production at Moxie Theatre in 2013. In both plays, there are some plot-holes. But in this one, the passions are palpable, and the dialogue is piercing.

Robert Malave has turned the black box space into a believable elementary school classroom. Kym Pappas has directed with a firm hand, making expert use of pace and volume variations and breath-holding pauses that increase audience suspense and apprehension.

The actors are superb, Nell is perfectly measured and controlled – until she isn’t. Kaneshiro is tightly spooled, both teasing and poised to pounce, a fiery amalgam of anger and grief.

Two finely shaded and delicately calibrated performances, in a blistering pas de deux.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.