In 2007, when a senior at Virginia Tech opened fire on campus, killing 32 people and injuring 17, playwright Julia Cho responded like most of the country, with horror and outrage.
But there was something else about the massacre that stuck with her.
Like her, the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was Korean American. He even shared her last name.
“I could feel a familiarity with him that was very uncomfortable, because with these kinds of events, we don’t want to feel like there’s any familiarity between us and the shooters,” said Cho. “This one I couldn’t easily distance myself from.
“It haunted my imagination for a long time.”
The event became the seed from which her latest work, “Office Hour,” grew. The play, which explores themes of fear, safety and violence through the viewpoint of a student-teacher relationship, premieres April 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
“I didn’t necessarily want to write a play about shootings. I wouldn’t know how to,” said Cho. “It’s such a complicated and raw topic. But I did feel like what I could do is not try to tackle it, not try to grasp it, but to look at it through a small lens.”
Cho, while careful not to reveal too much, explained that “Office Hour,” which stars “Grey’s Anatomy” actress Sandra Oh, is “not a normal play.” It focuses on the interactions between a professor and student during office hours, but the structure is non-linear, and the duration is short but intense.
“It felt wrong to impose upon such a complicated, messy subject some sort of smooth narrative arc,” she said.
Director Neel Keller agreed.
“The structure allows for various interpretations of events,” he said. “And it doesn’t pretend to be a series of events that leads to one definitive conclusion.”
Promotional materials explain the play this way: “He sits in the back of the classroom, wearing dark glasses, a baseball cap pulled down low … never speaking. His creative writing assignments are violent, twisted — and artless. He scares the other students. He scares the teachers. The kid is trouble. Or is he just mixed up, using his writing to vent, provoke, maybe even protect himself? Gina is the only teacher willing to get close. But at what risk?”
“The play is very open-ended about the characters,” said Keller. “Julia hasn’t tried to write a documentary about an event, or a play that gives answers about why these things happen. It’s much more open-ended, and that allows us all to feel, as we sit in the theater, that the play is dealing with something that we’re all dealing with in our lives, which is what has happened to notions of safety, society and inclusion.”
Cho, a Los Angeles native, has written more than a dozen plays, including “Durango,” “The Winchester House,” “BFE,” “The Architecture of Loss” and “Aubergine,” which have been produced by companies across the country. She has also written for the television series “Big Love” and “Fringe.”
Her relationship with South Coast Repertory dates to 2002, when the theater company brought her in to read her first play, “99 Histories,” for the Pacific Playwrights Festival. Since then, South Coast Repertory premiered her plays “The Piano Teacher” and “The Language Archive.”
“They’ve been really wonderful, and as time goes by, I find myself even more appreciative of how patient, generous and open they are,” Cho said of South Coast Repertory officials. “They’re truly all about playwright-led work. I never felt any sense of an agenda. Whenever they commissioned me, they always just want me to write something, and it was never suggested what or how.”
Cho said she hopes “Officer Hour” will lead to greater conversation about the themes brought up by the play.
“The thing I would love is for people to talk after it,” she said. “I don’t have a point of view that I want anyone to have. It’s not a didactic play. It asks a lot of questions.”
Keller said “Office Hour” highlights the importance of theater itself.
“It’s one of those plays where people will also leave and remember why the theater is a special thing,” he said. “I think it will have that electrical charge, where the actors are very aware there’s an audience listening, and the audience will be very aware that there are actors who are not only performing but listening.
“It will feel like a shared conversation. And you never get that in movies or other recorded medium.”
The power of theater, he added, is to bring “people who live around each other into a space and touch on something that they’re all feeling or dealing with, and raise that in them in a way that leads to conversations and a sense that we’re all in this together.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Office Hour”
Where: Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
When: April 10 to 30
Cost: Tickets start at $22
Information: scr.org; (714) 708-5555