The first scene in Julia Cho’s play, Office Hour, is a realistic scenario that could easily be played out on college campuses across the country. Three adjunct faculty members are huddled around an upright table drinking coffee while discussing one of their problematic students. He is menacing looking and hands in violent, sexually charged writings. One of the instructors mentions he has the profile of a shooter. The part-time faculty members’ concerns are very real when it comes to a student that might seem unsettling, maybe dangerous.
After the three individuals end their coffee break the setting switches to a spacious office where Gina (Jackie Chung ) awaits Dennis (Daniel Chung) who must attend her office hour as part of his course requirement. At first the undergraduate, with hoodie, baseball cap and dark sunglasses, doesn’t respond to any of her overtures but, eventually, he does begin to open-up. Mixed in during their mostly one-side conversations are some jarring, chilling visions by Gina that are deftly inserted into the staging. The duo’s ensuing exchanges, questioning, repartee, and heart-to-hearts veer from the possible to the implausible. I don’t know of any faculty member that would talk about her divorce or reveal intimate family details like Gina does in a cross-cultural, faculty-student counseling situation. And touching a student, even one in obvious pain, that’s a no no.
The overriding question in Office Hour is whether Dennis is or is not a shooter. There is no comfortable answer especially when the character pulls out a revolver from his backpack.
Ms. Cho does bring to light the anxiety and alarmed feelings of campus teaching faculty as students with all types of mental illness and other pronounced issues matriculate into the higher education environment. Her portrayal of Dennis, while an extreme example, also illustrates the dysfunctional nature of a amall portion of undergraduates today.
However, the show stumbles into an improbable representation of an instructor’s interaction with a troubled youth. The method in which goings-on unfold are unrealistic and flawed.
Ms. Cho states she was inspired to write Office Hour after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, but then disregards safeguards put in place in response to that tragic event in order to create a theatrical event. For example, an undergraduate in his Junior year, like the character Dennis, exhibiting the tendencies portrayed in the show would, nowadays, be flagged much, much earlier in his academic career. An adjunct, or even a full-time faculty member, would not engage in the rather intense counseling session depicted in the show. An undergraduate would be referred, instead, and mostly likely be required, to see a trained campus counselor or Dean.
Why should I care about these incongruities if they are rendered in the name of dramatic license? As a university administrator that works with challenging students and assists faculty when issues arise I found the show’s portrayals troubling and a disservice to academicians and students, like Dennis, that feel alienated, bullied, and psychologically beaten by their parents. These are significant problems that college students may face and deserve a more authentic presentment.
Jackie Chung is convincing as the instructor that, on the one hand, cares about the damaged individual in her class and, on the other hand, is frightened and wary of the young man. Daniel Chung is intimidating and exudes a threatening demeanor, but he also exposes a vulnerability and confusion that makes his character more sympathetic. Jeremy Kahn is somewhat excitable and foolish in his actions as David, one of the part-time instructors, who jump starts the production as it falters toward the end. Kerry Warren is more low-key and introspective as Genevieve, another of Gina’s teaching colleagues.
Director Lisa Peterson, working within the context and confines of the play’s structure, deftly builds up the drama and suspense between the main two protagonists. It’s not an easy task considering there are just two actors in one room and one of the roles calls for the performer to sit and stare into space for a significant portion of the show. At the end of the production, she smoothly orchestrates the staccato like blackouts at the end of the production with precision and horror.
Office Hour, an unrealistic and problematic play that, nonetheless, does bring forth weighty concerns enveloping college and university campuses.