Office Hour is 85 Minutes You’ll Never Forget
The words riveting, intense, and explosive (literally) just begin to describe Office Hour at Long Wharf Theatre, a new play by Julie Cho centered on the always topical and distressing issue of school gun violence. The play was only on stage for one week when yet another lethal school shooting occurred in Marshall County High School in Kentucky—two students dead, a dozen more wounded.
This 80-minute, intermission-less production takes the audience through a harrowing range of emotions that precisely mirror what the characters on stage are thinking and feeling, thanks to Cho’s compelling, multi-faceted writing and director Lisa Peterson’s unflinchingly straightforward interpretation of the script.
The four-person play takes place in the teachers’ office of a university. It opens with three professors, Genevieve (Kerry Warren), David (Jeremy Kahn), and Gina (Jackie Chung) discussing a student whose lurid, violent, sexual writing and anti-social behavior is putting them and their students on edge.
David and Genevieve are afraid that Dennis, the student (Daniel Chung) may go off the deep end and their campus might become the target of a shooting rampage. They label Daniel “a classic shooter,” but they have nothing to charge him with besides his appearance and disturbing writing.
Gina shows some sympathy toward Daniel, her writing student, and she thinks they may be overreacting. They enlist her to talk to him. Their thinking is that maybe she can break through his stony silence because, after all, she’s Asian, too.
What ensues for the majority of the play between Gina and Dennis is set up as a typical 20-minute student conference. However, the meeting goes to unimaginable places, keeping the audience mesmerized.
Daniel Chung as Dennis is remarkable in his ability to change his facial expression to convey utter contempt, horror, and ugliness. He then shifts to someone who is just a sad and misunderstood, even naive, guy when he lets down his guard and becomes vulnerable.
We feel his pain and want so badly to believe he can turn his life around if only people would see him and hear him, if he gets the right help. And then he does something to scare all of us.
As Gina, Jackie Chung displays a full range of emotions from tentative to angry to self-effacing as she opens up about her failed marriage, her life growing up in an Asian household, and living in a white world. She tries everything to make the silent Daniel speak, from throwing his newest fiction assignment out the window to holding his backpack hostage.
When he finally talks, he is quite rational. He tells her the uncomfortable truth—how easy it is to make it all about him. He tells her all his life everyone told him he was the problem.
“Years of art therapy and speech therapy, nothing made the feeling go away,” Daniel tells Gina. “I’m not the problem. I was born to be hated. I was born to be kicked. Without people like me, civilization would break down.”
In this production, Cho plays brilliantly with the characters’ heads, with our heads, creating an escalating pattern of violence in which we can’t discern reality from imagination.
David comes into the office to check on Gina, saying unconscionable, bullying things about Daniel, blaming Daniel for sending him nasty threatening anonymous emails, although he has no proof that they’re not from another student. David affirms everything bad Daniel already believes about human nature, undoing any progress Gina had made.
A dozen different scenarios flash before us as the play builds to its conclusion. These scenarios are chillingly executed with Scott Zielinski’s funereal lighting and Robert Kaplowitz’s harrowing sound effects. Matt Saunders’s set—a typical, nondescript university office—is all that’s needed as a backdrop for the intense dialogue and mounting tension.
Kahn’s and Warren’s roles are modest—they’re mainly catalysts for what ensues between Gina and Dennis—but both give even, earnest performances.
Office Hour makes us take a long, hard look at the man behind the gun—who he is, how he got that way, what role we play, how we’re complicit, how we’re silent bystanders.
There is no happy ending—there never is around gun violence—but Cho makes it very difficult for anyone who sees this production to feign ignorance or shrug off responsibility. It is a call to action. Our children’s and grandchildren’s futures are at stake.
Performances of Office Hour continue through Sunday, Feb. 11 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Tickets available by calling the box office at 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org
The theater partnered with Sandy Hook Promise to present conversations and programs in connection with the play, as well as events with New Haven Free Public Library to deepen the conversation about gun violence.
Amy J. Barry has been writing about Connecticut professional theater for more than 25 years. She is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. (ctcritics.org).