It has taken Johnna Adams two decades and a similar number of plays to achieve a taste of the commercial success of which most American playwrights dream. And she is one of the lucky ones.
The play that has the press lighting up her cellphone is “Gidion’s Knot,” a tense 75-minute one-act about a parent-teacher conference in the wake of a school tragedy.
The suspenseful drama, which premiered in 2012 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., will have 14 productions this season, including one that opens Friday at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. It is one of the most produced plays of the year. By contrast, the most productions any one of her previous 19 works got was three — over several years.
“I’ve written 20 plays and am still considered an emerging writer,” said the Midland, Texas-bred playwright, who now lives in New York. “Maybe this means that I’ve emerged?”
“Knot” was inspired by the Columbine high school shooting. Adams wrote it in graduate school under the tutelage of playwright Tina Howe. She considers the play a “valentine” to her professor, even if it’s a rather unusual one.
The themes in “Knot” include bullying, freedom of speech, and the negotiation of responsibility and blame as the two characters wrestle with each other.
The Pillsbury House production is directed by Noel Raymond and stars Aditi Brennan Kapil as Corryn, the single mother of 11-year-old Gidion, and Laura Esping as his teacher, Heather.
“It really is a knotty, gnarly play,” said Kapil, alluding to the mythic reference to the Gordian knot that is central to Adams’ drama. The playwright “chose not to cut the cord but to untangle it.”
“You don’t have a sense of resolution or easy answers,” said Esping. “At one moment you can side with Heather; at another, Corryn makes total sense.”
That seesawing is very much by design. Adams dislikes what she calls “pre-masticated plays” where all you’re left with is “how to feel.”
“Knot” is unusual in that it is has ellipses throughout. But they are not passive pauses.
“They have specific meaning and we play them in active ways,” said Kapil.
“The silence is like a third character,” said Esping, a veteran performer who has trotted the boards at most of the major theaters in the Twin Cities. “It’s great to have this kind of dark, funny, complex female characters.”
In some ways, that is Adams’ mission with this work. She wants to write great roles for women to fill in the gaps between ingénues and coquettes on the one hand and witches, spinsters and hags on the other.
She knows it from her friends, and from her own experience.
An only child, she left Texas for college at DePaul University in Chicago where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in acting. That was her initial love. But she realized that being a character actor was limiting. She also realized that even though female character actors have a longer staying power in theater, the opportunities were not as broad as those for men.
So she started writing plays as a way to increase roles for women and to satisfy her desire to “play more roles, at least in my head,” she said.
“In theater, the playwright is the raft that everyone else’s dreams float on,” she said.
Adams writes many different types of plays about subjects that she finds interesting but may not be as topical as “Knot.” Her “Angel Eaters” trilogy includes a drama about an Oklahoma preacher who is kidnapped by a snake wrangler. Her “Cockfighters” trilogy is set in the West Texas milieu of her youth.
“I enjoy exploring completely different genres — horror movie, murder mystery, comedy, everything,” she said. “I’ve always thought that voice isn’t married to a genre.”
She is fine with not being easily pigeonholed, even if that means that “Knot” may be her odd success.
“The plays I’m writing now are not as topical” as “Gidion,” she said. “They’re gonna be the ugly stepsisters that watch their sister go to the ball repeatedly but don’t get the same attention. Maybe one of them will surprise. We’ll see.”