A 40-year-old teacher has an affair with his 15-year-old student. There’s no question that’s wrong, both legally and morally. It’s also, in the hands of playwright Rose Napoli, damnably complicated and a potent narrative for exploring everything from power to intimacy to the wellsprings of artistic creativity.
Now at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) features Erica Anderson as Laura Kelly, the student. Anderson turned in a fine performance at GCTC last season as another questing 15-year-old in Joan MacLeod’s one-woman show Gracie. She’s just as good here, moving from a prickly, self-protective teen with an unrealized flair for writing to someone who realizes sex can be power but doesn’t see that it can, when inequitable as it is here, also victimize.
Laura signs up for an after-school writing club with her English teacher, Alan Wells (Geoff McBride, who makes the most of Alan’s nerdiness and his unbridled enthusiasm for literature and his young student’s budding talent).
Laura is the only student in the club and convinces Alan to share his writing with her just as she does hers with him. We also learn that she is the daughter of an inattentive father, he the husband of an apparently less-than-passionate wife.
The outcome of all that togetherness and those unmet needs may be inevitable, but Napoli handles the trajectory superbly, building tension and expectation by making the writing each person shares a kind of literary foreplay, a slow and increasingly intimate discovery of each other. That’s especially so in Laura’s case: almost frighteningly precocious — Anderson walks the balance beam between teenager and woman adroitly — she locks her radar firmly on Alan and, infatuated as only a teenager can be, pursues him.
There’s no excuse for Alan’s reciprocating, but he does. It’s the kind of thing, abhorrent and selfish though it is, that happens in real life, and Napoli is not devoid of empathy for Alan. Nor are we. Laura may quote Alan’s favourite book, The Great Gatsby – “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” – but foolishness clearly isn’t reserved for either sex or for any age.
As passion and intimacy swirl, an overnighter in a hotel arranged and deception grows, it could be easy for us to forget the inequity of the situation. Napoli doesn’t let us off the hook, however. The lovers fantasize about their age difference and the future, their gauzy dispelling of reality a signal that things are badly awry when someone in a position of authority takes up with someone so much younger and even more vulnerable than he. That disjunction is underscored by Brian Smith’s set – a three-walled schoolroom with two of the walls angled like arms about to embrace in either affection or suffocation. The shadows of Seth Gerry’s lighting design further suggest dark and dangerous undercurrents at work.
Alas, Napoli’s script loses its taut, forward motion in the latter part of the play.
The entire narrative has been framed as Laura, now 25, looking backward and telling the story. Without giving too much away, toward the end, 25 year old Laura, now a successful writer, makes a bigger appearance. We see that the affair has been one factor in who she’s become, that, wrong though it was, it unleashed the literary and sexual power that she had been in danger of bottling up forever.
But this adult Laura (that she’s still wearing her schoolgirl outfit is a bit too obvious) is never fleshed out and, although she’s the person who’s told the entire story, feels like an add-on, a way to wrap things up. There’s also a manuscript involved, the implications of which are never entirely clear.
Napoli’s weak conclusion doesn’t torpedo the play, which is tightly directed by Eric Coates, but it does hamper what’s otherwise a provocative piece of writing.
Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) is a GCTC production. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until May 17. Tickets and information: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196, gctc.ca