BWW Review: Julia Cho's Urgent and Sensitive OFFICE HOUR Calls For Compassion To Combat Gun Violence
The sudden act of violence that occurs early on in on Julia Cho's urgent and sensitive drama Office Hour, is certainly not unexpected. The opening scene sets up the audience to be prepared for exactly this kind of thing to happen.
But then something unexpected, and quite refreshing, does happen. After a quick blackout, the lights flash back up and the scene continues as though what we just saw didn't happen. It's as though the playwright wanted to get the expected over with so that viewers can then focus on her greater points.
This happens several times during the tense and extremely well thought out play. A violent action occurs that could end everything right there, and then a quick blackout cleanses us of the moment so that we can consider more positive outcomes.
The play begins with three adjunct university creative writing professors sitting down to coffee and discussing potential problems ahead. David (Greg Keller) and Genevieve (Adeola Role) want to warn Gina (Sue Jean Kim) about her new student Dennis, a former pupil of theirs who spent most of his classroom time quietly sitting in the back, hiding his face with a hoodie, baseball cap and sunglasses.
A prolific writer, Dennis handed in assignments filled with scatological violent imagery, including rape and murder. Other students would drop the course, fearing being near Dennis, but, as he hadn't done anything, no action could be taken against him.
David believes he's a classic case of someone who will eventually take part in a campus shooting spree. Gina, however, is skeptical about her colleagues' generalizations, going as far as to consider that it's good for him to be using writing as an outlet.
"You guys must have stuff in common," David, who is white, suggests. "Not psychologically but, you know, a background."
When Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) arrives at Gina's office for the first of their student/teacher meetings, we see what he means. Both are Korean Americans.
But while his comment may be regarded as racially insensitive, Gina recognizes the struggles Dennis no doubt encounters as a loner child of immigrant parents.
The bulk of the play is their one-on-one meeting, which begins with Gina casually trying to draw any kind of response from the young man. Director Neel Keller allows long stretches of silence, a realistic touch that's especially effective because the audience can see the working clock placed above the doorway.
Both Kim and Lee are excellent. The playwright allows for gradual connections to be made between them as Kim balances her character's fears with her desire to help and Lee realistically presents Dennis as a damaged soul wanting help but wary of anyone who reaches out to him.
What is so gripping about the play and the production is the ever-present fear of horrific violence that permeates the space, even as sympathy grows for Dennis. A visual montage of sickening possibilities climaxes with an extended moment where the audience sits in pitch darkness and sound designer Bray Poor creates the impression that somewhere in The Public Theater there is a mass shooting taking place.
Sadly, Office Hour grew even more relevant during its preview period, and while some may debate whether the growing occurrence of mass shootings is a gun control issue or a mental health issue, Cho effectively calls for compassion and outreach from a society that commonly creates violent loners out of troubled children.