Fort Worth — What if you could hit the reset button on a conversation, on life even, when it went downhill in some way? That’s the basic conceit of Julia Cho’s Office Hour, where an adjunct professor’s chat—interrogation?—with a troubled student hits dead end after dead end before rebooting like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but with possible life-or-death stakes. I say possible because the audience is left to wonder which scenario, if any, actually played out as we saw it. In Circle Theatre’s well-paced production, the four-person cast excels at grounding the piece in the face of its unrealistic elements, though the play’s structure makes it difficult for the audience to really invest in any outcome.
As the play opens, two veteran professors (Whitney Holotik as Genevieve and Ivan Jasso as David) at an unnamed college are filling in their colleague Gina (Olivia de Guzman) on a troubled student in their program, Dennis (Alex Vinh). Dennis, a loner in dark glasses and a baseball cap, submits creative writing work full of disturbing, violent imagery, freaking out his teachers and peers alike, who steer clear of him as a potential future school shooter. Gina decides to meet with Dennis after school as a sort of combination get-to-know-you/threat assessment, where she tries out various conversational gambits to tease out any personal information from an uncooperative Dennis—empathy, tough love, direct confrontation. Some scenarios seemingly end in violence, while in others she seems to get through to him. One thing is made crystal clear: Dennis likes guns, owns guns, and knows how to use guns, and the potential threat of him using them on Gina, on himself, on innocent bystanders on campus, is the driving force behind the play’s action.
It’s not just a play about guns, let’s state that for the record now; it’s a play with guns—lots of them—but that’s not what it’s about. Playwright Julia Cho wrote this piece as a response to the 2007 school shooting at Virginia Tech, where a 23-year-old South Korean student killed 32 people before killing himself. Warnings to authorities from his creative writing teachers, who cited the violent imagery in his work, went unheeded; the shooter had been in therapy for a number of years for various undiagnosed mental illnesses, but had voluntarily discontinued treatment, though one Virginia Tech professor encouraged him to seek treatment prior to the shooting. Who knows whether that would’ve changed the outcome? It’s this sort of “what if” that Cho is interested in: what if the actions of one person, intervening in a situation at a precise moment, could stave off tragedy? Or is it impossible to counteract the consequences of years of “othering”—by teachers, by parents, by mental health professionals, by the country as a whole—that all combined to create the very monster they feared?
Despite being a four-hander, the play’s success depends on the two actors at the center of the action. De Guzman, after the initial scene, essentially carries on a monologue for nearly 20 minutes, speaking to—or at—Vinh’s silent, sullen Dennis, and she more than rises to meet the challenge. Her Gina is at turns tough, determined, terrified, angry, and empathetic, and, despite the inorganic constructs the play forces onto the action, manages to keep the character’s transitions organic and believable. She’s a terrific physical actor, saying volumes with her body language as she struggles to keep the conversation from going off the rails at every turn, sometimes clearly aching for Dennis, and at other times repulsed by him. It’s quite the high-wire act, but de Guzman never loses her balance. Vinh’s Dennis, at first a silent, seemingly inert presence, eventually unwinds enough to respond to Gina, and the subsequent seesaw between his pain and his rage is impressively managed. The audience may respond to his wounded nature, but his potential threat is never neutralized. Holotik’s disengaged Genevieve and Jasso’s bullying David aren’t onstage much, but both make the most of it when they are. All in all the production, under Dallas-based Jenny Ledel’s direction, is fast-paced and engaging, but it’s hard to maintain high emotional stakes when the audience knows any minute the play will hit the reset button; given that we’re left to wonder which events actually took place, if any, it’s difficult to invest fully in the action, a problem weighing down the production despite its talented cast. In a moment that subverts expectations, Genevieve frets in the opening scene that, “There are broken people—always have been, always will. But now? It’s like they’ve been given ideas.” Ideas, not guns—it’s perhaps a more interesting thesis than the one the play pursues.
Clare Floyd DeVries’ set design is well-conceived, detailed and banal enough to make the menace under the play’s surface palpable; in a clever bit of design, the set slides backward and forward to conceal a fountain where the first and last scenes of the piece take place. Special mention should be made of the lighting design by Jennifer Owen, which requires split second timing to maintain tension, especially in the play’s final few scenes. The gun violence portrayed is well-choreographed (by Danielle Georgiou) and provoked several gasps from the audience; as indicated by the numerous posted signs throughout the theater, the violence is fairly frequent and comes to an affecting crescendo by play’s end, so sensitive patrons, be warned.
There are a lot of ideas on display in Julia Cho’s Office Hour, and Circle Theatre’s production doesn’t shy away from the play’s hard edges, engaging them with humanity and even humor. It’s not a particularly easy play to sit through, but Circle Theatre’s production makes it one that’s well worth your time.