Office Hour opens with a short scene that primes the audience to anticipate a terrifying event — a shooting at a university — and then delays that event as long as possible. In playwright Julia Cho’s astute hands, though, that delay becomes the point: It is the trauma we bring to the play, not the fear it invents, that she is asking us to examine.
Office Hour runs at Long Wharf Theatre through Feb. 11 — after a series of successful productions at South Coast Repertory, the Public Theatre, and Berkeley Repertory (which co-produces the Long Wharf’s production) — in the form of 80 simmering minutes of challenging, smart theater. It is structured like a simple thriller, but denies any easy understanding of “trouble” students, a term a young adjunct uses in the play’s first scene to describe Dennis, who writes violent, graphic stories in his creative writing classes and refuses to speak when confronted about them. Dennis, we are told, is a “classic shooter,” so when he walks into the office of Gina, another adjunct and his new instructor, both she and the audience can be forgiven for stiffening their backs. Dressed in all black, including a hat, hoodie, and dark sunglasses, he fills every stereotype accrued from decades of media profiles of the student-turned-murderer, from Virginia Tech 20 years ago to Newtown 30 miles from New Haven to the Kentucky high school where two students lost their lives the day before this production opened. Gina, who shares Dennis’s Asian immigrant background, believes she can get through to him with the right combination of sympathetic personal stories and tough love. Cho’s achievement is to frustrate her expectations and our own.
There are thus two narratives the play teases: the story of the special teacher who can redeem the student no one else can reach, and the story of the irreparable monster in a child’s body. Cho gives us both in the form of Gina’s runaway imagination. Dennis responds to Gina’s writing prompt with a moving story about a father who never loved him. Then a short blackout jolts us back to reality, and we learn that all Dennis really wrote was “Fuck off.” Dennis pulls a gun out of his backpack and shoots Gina, then a short blackout reveals the violence was in her head, not (necessarily) his. Eventually, in the evening’s coup d’theatre, these fantasies take over the play itself, as we see dozens of possible endings to the plot’s climactic confrontation, none of which reflect the less melodramatic conclusion that in fact ends the scene.
The repetitious fantasies, which play on loop as they do in Gina’s head and ours, are not the stuff of catharsis; they are the stuff of trauma. Office Hour is a portrait of citizens traumatized by a terror that cannot be explained, that no one with authority has stepped forward to stop, and whose persecutors are left as powerless as their victims. Jackie Chung plays Gina as exhausted and exasperated, drawing on deep reserves of pluckiness. Her office, designed by Matt Saunders, is as empty as any adjunct instructor’s, temporary housing to the precariousness that lurks behind Gina’s paranoid desperation. As both an exploited, underpaid professional and an Asian woman uniquely aware of the pressures Dennis is under, Gina walks a fine line between responsibility and resentment. Chung carries the load with a confident intelligence that grounds the production, especially given that her scene partner’s silence often makes the play feel like a solo performance.
Daniel Chung has the still tougher job as Dennis, whose chief character trait is his unrelatability. Though he’s robotic when he’s shut down, once Dennis finally opens up to Gina, the rage he reveals is more terrifying than his silence. Chung draws many layers from that fury, the most poignant of which is the fear Dennis has of himself. Chung delivers Dennis’s confessions like explosions, beyond his control or understanding. He paints the boy’s anger as a symptom of his fragility. That Chung wrests a three-dimensional human being out of a fundamentally monstrous character makes it clear that fear of school violence traps people like Dennis as much as it enables them.
Director Lisa Peterson wisely takes a light touch to the production, giving her actors the space they need. Light designer Scott Zielinski’s fluorescent tones and sunshine through aging windows provide a bureaucratic haze that suggests the forms of institutional abandonment of which both Gina and Dennis are victims. But Office Hour is a reckoning not with systemic failures, but with our own inability to feel safe within them, to make sense of and to work through our fears. It is not only Gina and Dennis who are trapped, Cho argues; it is we.
Office Hour runs at Long Wharf Theatre through Feb. 11. Click here for tickets and more information.