Review: "Office Hour" at Berkeley Repertory Theater

Jordan Nickels

Playwright Julia Cho challenges a pressing issue in our country right now, gun violence, in her new play Office Hour at Berkeley Repertory Theater. Cho’s approach to this topic is one that adds new layers to the conversation, which is fresh in all of our minds.

Office Hour centers around a college student named Dennis, who fits the profile of a troubled student sitting in the back of the classroom and refusing to communicate with anyone.  Gina, a writing instructor, brings Dennis in for an office hour to better understand Dennis and his uniquely grotesque writing, a student that Gina’s other colleagues have failed to approach. Different scenarios play out as we learn more about Dennis’ history as well as Gina’s, from their cultural heritage to their emotional and mental well-being.

Daniel Chung played Dennis with such an intensity that the audience felt both sympathy and unease for Dennis between fits of rage and defeat. Jackie Chung as Gina played a knowledgeable figure providing comfort to Dennis, but also showed a relatable vulnerability and nervousness around this tense situation. These characters had a fascinating relationship, as the student and teacher spoke on equal playing ground, with their own sense knowledge as well as unawareness to the situation.

There have been many interesting play about gun violence in the last few years as news of school shootings and other acts of violence have unfortunately become a common occurrence. However, Julia Cho not only tells this story from the perspective of characters with an Asian-American background, but also from the perspective of one of these “troubled students” we see in these stories. This play doesn’t advocate for or against gun laws or get into the politics of this issue, Office Hour looks at what happens before the tragedy and what might lead to it. The audience observes potential victims to suspected assailants, and what motivates a person to commit such a heinous act.

    (l to r) Jeremy Kahn (David), Daniel Chung (Dennis), and Jackie Chung (Gina) in Julia Cho’s “Office Hour,” directed by Lisa Peterson. A co-production with Long Wharf Theatre. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

 

(l to r) Jeremy Kahn (David), Daniel Chung (Dennis), and Jackie Chung (Gina) in Julia Cho’s “Office Hour,” directed by Lisa Peterson. A co-production with Long Wharf Theatre. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Office Hour is about choices, from those you have made in the past that will lead you to those you make in the future. These characters have made choices that have been influenced by their culture, their family life, and the environment they inhabit. This play emotional invests us in these characters by them telling us their history and how they’ve gotten to where they are in this teacher-student conference. While we are not made to judge these characters by their choices, these characters are still held accountable by the consequences of the actions they chose to carry out.

The spinning clock in the corner is very reminiscent of our want to go back in time and make other choices in our lives. This play lays out all the scenarios made from Gina and Dennis’ interaction, multiple situations in which we dream up in our day to day decisions, but with much higher stacks next to the barrel of a gun. Office Hour teaches us that we have to understand people in order to get to the root of the problem of gun violence in our country. While this play doesn’t offer a clear solution, it does propose a new lens to view this issue, which during such a bleak period in our history offers a glimmer of hope.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for over two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8