by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

“Is there a more primal emotion than fear?” asks writer John Glare in his introduction to Office Hour, a world premiere commissioned by South Coast Repertory from Korean-American writer Julia Cho (The Language Archive, The Architecture of Loss).

Office Hour is a psychologically riveting and hypothetical amalgamation of real events sparked by the mass school shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 and further influenced by the more recent shootings at UC Santa Barbara. It is one of the most important discourses on the subject of “what if” theatre-goers will experience this year.

Experientially disturbing, embedded in every inch of this text is fear – rational and irrational, unsettling hopelessness and deep internal pain. It is a teacher versus student deadlock in a potentially un-savable situation. It is a struggle for control and identity recognition, a desire to be seen, to claim a humanity that has been stripped because of a person’s “difference”.

Dennis, a seemingly troubled, Asian student in a college screen-writing program composes frightening pornographic, sexual violence, which scares his fellow students and professors alike. All except one – Gina an adjunct professor, also Asian, who thinks he’s weird but not all that unusual. When her colleagues complain about his writing and borderline psychotic classroom behaviors they ask Gina, whose class Dennis is now attending, to “talk” to him hoping she might find a “way in” via their shared ethnicity. Dennis has not actually broken any official school policies and has managed to maintain his grades so the meeting itself already borders, “crossing the line.” But Gina finds a way to do it and it sets the stage for a series of explosive confrontations.

Throughout a single hour, Gina breaks through Dennis’ silence and faces off with him, his intentions, motivations and whether or not he is actually in control of his overwhelming anger, in control enough to either not hurt himself or hurt others. At times, tender at others fiercely combative the session becomes increasingly intense with each new discovery about Dennis’ childhood, his family, his sexual experiences, his outcast status and the depth of his despair.

Real time scenarios continuously shape shift with frighteningly violent, alternate outcomes that challenge perspective in the mere seconds they appear, before returning to the apparent conversation at hand. The possibilities of what could happen in these moments as opposed to what does, are so shocking that each time, we are oddly left in a middle space, a dilemma of conscience, perhaps more enlightened as to the “why” of Dennis but not the “what if”.

Dennis is Gina’s Matterhorn – a mountain of all mountains. There may never be a way to save him or for Dennis to save himself. Gina continues to hope.

Sandra Oh is brilliant in her utterly heartfelt, rational and determined performance; an embodiment of a concerned teacher culturally and personally empathetic to Dennis’ issues having lived them. In some ways, Dennis is a sort of reflection of herself.

Raymond Lee has taken Dennis to an eye-opening extreme of a young man in torment existing at a razor-thin edge.

Performances by Sola Bamis (Genevieve) and Cory Brill (David) round out this play “full spectrum”.

Office Hour is chilling yet profoundly moving and thought-provoking.  It focuses a highly sensitive lens on our personal paranoia, over what could happen in this age of aggressive terrorism and deranged violence and the ongoing debate as to what to do when faced with an uncomfortable person or situation. How do we judge, decide, act. And are we truly objective, or living merely in anxiety? Are we seeing the truth or are we irrationally creating what isn’t necessarily there?

Superb direction by Neel Keller is even more enhanced by a hair-raising lighting design by Elizabeth Harper, sound design by Peter Bayne and beautifully uncomplicated scenic design by Takeshi Kata and Se Oh who use every inch of the space to perfection.  Costume design by Alex Jaeger absolutely serves the genre.

Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Neel Keller

David (student) – Corey Brill
Genevieve – Sola Bamis
Gina – Sandra Oh
Dennis — Raymond Lee