Less than a month after this February’s Parkland, Fla., school shooting, a recent CNN headline read, “One student dead, another hurt in Alabama school shooting.” As Congress stands flaccid and inert in response to that hydra-headed problem, artists are responding to the violence by examining the individuals and the communities affected by it. We can add Julia Cho’s Office Hour (at Berkeley Rep through March 25) to the growing canon of works that contend with school shootings. Alongside David Greig’s play The Events and Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, Office Hour also dramatizes the internal life of a troubled student.
Like Greig and Shriver, Cho grounds an extraordinary situation in an easily recognizable, everyday reality. At the beginning of a new semester at her midwestern college, two of Gina’s (Jackie Chung) creative writing colleagues warn her about Dennis (Daniel Chung). Both David (Jeremy Kahn) and Genevieve (Kerry Warren) had Dennis as a student in previous terms. They describe him as a disturbing presence. His personal affect is anti-social in the extreme. But it’s not just that he’s withdrawn and silent, his furious and gore-filled writing upsets his classmates and teachers. They approach Gina to alert her, but also to ask for her help since, like Dennis, she’s also Asian. They assume, rightly it turns out, a similar family background.
Recently divorced, Gina is an adjunct professor of creative writing. She’s not at loose ends, exactly, but she’s in transition. Her position at the university is temporary, probably tenuous, and she’s also adjusting to being single again. But, the playwright implies, she has room to open up to Dennis due to her state of mind. Gina is in between places and identities. As a plot device, Greig and Shriver also employ an adult to reach out to a potential shooter, but their characters can’t make contact with the troubled, explosive kids they know.
Gina does reach Dennis, in part, because of their shared cultural identity. She recognizes in her student her own father’s attention-getting silence, and the way both men use it as an emotional weapon. Gina and Dennis also role-play a mother-son exchange in which Gina intimately understands his mother’s expectations, her disapproval and her love. Cho doesn’t write any scenes set in class, either with or without Dennis and the other students. We meet him for the first time, per Gina’s explicit request, at her office hour. Office Hour then becomes, and remains, an extended dialogue between two actors. Technically, at least for their first scenes together, the play is a monologue for Gina as she struggles to reach her uncommunicative yet hostile student.
As Gina, Jackie Chung appeared to be growing into the role. Her performance was restrained in moments that called for a more bristling energy. The actress delivered her lines thoughtfully and intelligently but she was still feeling her way out to the edges of Gina’s character. As the play continues its theatrical run, Chung has the opportunity to experiment and plumb more of Gina’s frayed edges rather than smoothing them down. It’s a role that’s a tightrope walk. Gina tries to elicit a response from Dennis while, at the same time, tempering his volatility.
Before he walks on stage, the audience hears Dennis being described for nearly 15 minutes. He’s taking up an enormous amount of mental space for someone who’s functionally mute or suffering from an extreme case of social anxiety. When Daniel Chung appears, you can see bags under his red, sleepless eyes. Dennis is dressed, unremarkably, all in black — which accentuates his skin’s unhealthy pallor. Chung makes his character’s misery palpable. Cho has mapped out Dennis’ sensitive fault lines, and we slowly find them as Gina draws him out. It’s an acute and poignant portrait, both by the playwright and the actor, of a young man failing to mature, and failing to grasp that he isn’t.
Apart from feeling inadequate in comparison with a more accomplished, older sister, Dennis aches from the shame of being a male virgin. When he tells an anecdote about a girl shuddering once as he tried to kiss her, Chung conveyed the boy’s sense of physical and social isolation. While his peers are dating and exploring their sexuality, Dennis only has his self-hatred to play with. Cho doesn’t oversimplify Gina’s and our knowledge of his torments by coming up with an easy resolution. Office Hour suggests that attempting to connect to a troubled soul may help ease their suffering. But it may not. Before the close, the play also spins out a series of fast-paced and plausible unhappy endings. Cho posits an ideal world of connection and its opposite, the one we live in now where most Americans have easy access to automatic rifles.
Office Hour, through March 25 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $67-$97; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org