Outside the stage door at Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Julia Cho’s play Office Hour, there are signs that warn of the “loud recorded gunshots” and “live blanks” used during the show — a signal of the controversial themes the story explores.
The play, which premiered at the Public Theater in 2017, focuses on Gina, a writing professor trying to connect with Dennis, a student whom other teachers say exhibits violent tendencies. Most of the action takes place during one session of Gina’s office hours, where she attempts to help Dennis and tries to decipher whether he could be a threat to the school. Long Wharf partnered with the organization Sandy Hook Promise to organize various community events centered on the play’s themes. Performances began Jan. 17 and will conclude Feb. 11.
“One of the things that the play does really well is that the fear and the thriller aspect of the play is all rooted in scenarios that are really entrenched in our American narrative right now,” said Elizabeth Nearing, community engagement manager at Long Wharf. “It doesn’t take a lot to conjure the imagery of a shooter, we have that at our fingertips. It is part of our collective imagining and collective reality that these are things that are happening in America.”
To foster further conversation about gun violence and related topics, Long Wharf has produced eight events at different branches of the New Haven Free Public Library in an effort to connect ideas about mental health and violence to the New Haven Community, according to Nearing.
Some of these events include a panel of people focused on anti-violence conversations in New Haven, a “story slam” in which people discuss instances in which they felt like an outsider, and a symposium featuring people involved in the Yale New Haven Health System. Long Wharf also produced a pre-show in which Mark Barden, the founder of Sandy Hook Promise, spoke about losing his young son during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
One of the projects that Nearing said she is excited to introduce after Office Hour’s run ends is Start with Hello Week.
“It is an initiative from Sandy Hook Promise that now the New Haven Free Public Library is doing, which is just a really simple idea that you should just say hello to everyone all the time,” she said. “It sounds really small but just does wonders to make people feel seen, which is one of the core questions of this play.”
Much of Long Wharf’s programming focuses on the way theatre can reach the community and “offer [people] an opportunity to look at the world through someone else’s eyes,” Nearing said. The audience response after Wednesday’s show seemed to align with this perspective.
Although some attendees thought the overt political message made the play lose some of its “artistic grace” in a series of violent images, others appreciated the more human moments of the show between Gina and Dennis.
“I am definitely feeling very wrung out on the inside,” said Carmen Partridge, who attended the Wednesday performance. “The courage that the main character demonstrates in staying humanly engaged is admirable.”
Long Wharf will begin performances of another play, “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” on Feb. 28.
Carolyn Sacco | firstname.lastname@example.org