Curtain Call: Of active shooters, guns, and violence

Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven: Is anyone safe anywhere? Doubly charged with timeliness and believability, there’s nowhere to hide once the shooting starts in Julia Cho’s play Office Hour. Since we can’t hide from it (the violence, the racism, the pain), we ought to address it. “Looking at this thing and not turning out, or doing something else, or distracting yourself, but just carving out this space and time to think about it — that’s all the play asks,” said Cho in an interview. By the time the play ends, you have to acknowledge that Cho has us all in this violent mess together — all of us, even the shooter.
Cho is like a voice of reason. She’s not arguing for gun control or asking teachers to carry guns. She simply wants to introduce the players in all their flawed humanness and pain. Even in a scene with bodies sprawled across an office floor and lying in pools of blood, all are together — teachers, student, shooter.
So realistic is Julia Cho’s play and Lisa Peterson’s riveting direction that you can expect to jump out of your skin at least three times throughout the current production at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage 11. Inspired by the shooting at Virginia Tech and the tragedy in Newtown, Cho gets close to the marrow in her portrayal of a dedicated teacher trying to connect with a troubled student.
The opening scene finds two professors discussing Dennis, a former student in their classes. He dresses in a black hoodie, and essentially hides his face with big dark sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down low. They warn a third teacher, Gina, who is about to get this student in her class. His former English teachers believe that Dennis has all the characteristics of a would-be shooter. He doesn’t talk much, has no friends, but what he writes is so vulgar and violent that it frightens other students as well as the teachers.
One professor suggests that perhaps Gina has enough in common with this student to get through to him. After all, they are both Asian Americans. This is offered with a trace of racism. And so the play begins with a reticent student barely responding to Gina’s attempts to be civil. She gets frustrated; the student gets frustrated and the first few office hour meetings do not go well.
Just when Gina starts to make some headway, Dennis reveals that he has a gun. That’s when the director who has masterfully created enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat employs a staccato series of incidents that move from reality to fantasized terror and back to reality in rapid fire succession. That’s when the audience gasps and holds on to their seats as the play disconnects, momentarily moving into the world of possibility, only to reconnect seconds later. The effect is stunning, shocking, and frightening.
The playwright poses many questions regarding everything from racism, stereotyping, empathy, guns, violence and fear. Don’t expect answers. Cho wants to provoke and ponder. Truth be told, anyone seeing this production will never forget it.          
Office Hour speeds through its 90-minute action with flawless performances. Daniel Chung as Dennis wears a frown so deeply that the audience can feel Dennis’ deep life altering pain. Jackie Chung portrays Gina as the Everyteacher. She’s strong and wise, but full of passion and understanding. Jeremy Kahn and Kerry Warren do a fine job of presenting the type of teachers and people who label and pigeonhole others. It’s as if Cho is saying keep an open mind; stop closing doors, and know that we are all in this together.
Matt Saunders’ set design is clean and perfectly captures an adjunct professor’s office. The set offers some refreshing clarity to a very muddied subject. Maggie Morgan’s costume designs are character appropriate and Scott Zielinski’s lighting with Robert Kaplowitz’ original music and sound design transform Cho’s script into a living art. This is a wonderful production of a very timely work. It plays through Feb. 11. Box office: 203-787-4282
Joanne Greco Rochman is a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected].