Stage Door Review 2019

Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells)

May 3, 2019

✭✭✭

by Rose Napoli, directed by Eric Coates

Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa

May 2-17, 2019

“I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (from The Great Gatsby)

Rose Napoli’s Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) from 2017 deals with a female teenager who has an affair with her male high school English teacher. Simply by using this situation Napoli causes her story to draw comparisons with David Mamet’s play Oleanna (1992) though Mamet’s play is set at a university. Using the nickname “Lo” draws comparisons with another teenaged girl involved with a middle-aged man in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955), which is referred to in the play. Napoli attempts to counter both these precedents by focussing on the teenager’s view of the affair ten years after it ended. 

Napoli’s play is neither as tightly structured as Mamet’s play nor as wildly allusive as Nabokov’s novel. Instead, unlike both Mamet and Nabokov, she presents the teenager as actively pursuing the middle-aged man. The play begins with Laura Kelly (Erica Anderson) preparing to visit the home of her former English teacher Alan Wells (Geoff McBride). Thinking of how she will have to knock on his door reminds her of the last time she saw Mr. Wells ten years earlier when she knocked on his office door at high school to warn him that the police were coming for him. This scene she replays three or four times before deciding that she should take us through everything that led up to that fateful event.

What she used to like most about Mr. Wells is that he would read to the class, and later just to her. His favourite book was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and one sentence always stuck in her mind. That was Daisy Buchanan’s exclamation on her hopes for her infant girl: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool”. As we discover later, Laura has been away from school for a week while she was at group therapy meetings for teens who had tried to commit suicide. Now back at Northwood Catholic School, the shy, awkward Laura seems completely to have turned her focus from herself to Mr. Wells. She hides in his office to meet him. She reads her creative writing assignments to him that she won’t read to the class. 

Mr. Wells is so taken with Laura’s writing abilities that he forms a creative writing class. When Laura is repeatedly the only one to show up, the two decide to hold club meetings with just the two of them. Descriptive writing tasks they set for themselves become increasingly personal, with Laura’s becoming far more suggestive than Mr. Wells’s are. Laura demands more and more personal information from Mr. Wells, and when he finally tells her he is married, she reacts with rage as if he has deliberately hidden this vital information from her.

Throughout the first part of the play, Napoli has depicted Mr. Wells as extremely staid and fastidiously proper and even a bit dull. He always makes sure his office door is open when a student visits. He physically keeps his distance from Laura. And he shuts down any conversation of hers that strays, as it frequently does, into inappropriate topics. It is Laura whom Napoli portrays as obsessive, unstable and aggressively flirtatious.

Therefore, it comes as a major surprise when Mr. Wells, seemingly out of nowhere, tries to kiss Laura. She resists but then rushes up to him for a long, lingering embrace. From this point on, the action becomes increasing less believable. If Napoli had given us more background to Mr. Wells, we might be able to understand why he is suddenly engaging in such dangerous, morally dubious behaviour. All we know is that he and his wife have no children, but that’s hardly a sufficient sign of marital unhappiness. 

If Napoli had had Mr. Wells read sexually suggestive passages from literature to Laura we might have thought that he harboured a hidden desire for her. Far too late in the play, Napoli has Mr. Wells say that his relationship with Laura makes him feel he is still desirable even at his age, but there had been no hint earlier he even thought about such things. By the time Napoli has Mr. Wells go so far as to book a hotel room for him and Laura for Valentine’s Day, we have lost faith in the play. The affair has become too tawdry given what we know of Mr. Well’s good taste and it has gone on so long that it is implausible that no one, Mr. Well’s colleagues or his wife, have noticed.

The relationship is only discovered by a rash decision Laura makes in anger and immediately regrets. But, unlike Oleanna and also less believably, Mr. Wells does not lose his job and Laura is not penalized in any life-stunting manner. Because Napoli wants to place Laura in total control of the action, she turns the plot into a revenge drama. For ten years Laura, whom Mr. Wells had called “Lo” by accident, has planned how to redress the wrong Mr. Wells has done her. 

The problem, of course, is that since Napoli has placed Laura in control all along, what wrong could Mr. Wells have done? As it turns out the what has incensed Laura the most is the same thing that all mistresses of whatever age have objected to in literature – i.e., Mr. Wells still loves his wife and she has not replaced her in his affections. For Laura to think she has such power only makes her look egocentric and foolish. For her to have meditated on revenge for ten years while Mr. Wells has moved on, does not make Laura looks wise and mature but rather just as obsessive and unstable as she was before.

In a play where the characters as written lose credibility halfway through the action, much depends on the actors to repair this flaw. It can’t be said that Erica Anderson and Geoff McBride succeed in doing this. Since Napoli has given Mr. Wells no dialogue to indicate his desire for Laura, McBride would have to show this through his body language. But, as directed by Eric Coates, McBride maintains such physical distance between himself and Anderson that we have no indication before the attempted kiss that he had the least interest in Laura other than as a professional worried about an obviously troubled student. McBride does not even use a change in tone of voice to put a spin on the completely neutral words Mr. Wells uses. The result is that rather than appearing to be a smouldering ember that suddenly bursts into flame, McBride’s Mr. Wells seems like a wet dishrag that remains a wet dishrag even after he has fallen in lust with Laura.

This leaves Erica Anderson with the task of having to act out the passion for both her character and McBride’s. Anderson glows with intensity and is excellent at depicting Laura’s gradual transformation from a tremulous introvert to a lascivious extrovert who seems to think only of sex. This entire emotional arc she well contrasts with that of the mature Laura, whose revenge plot frames the action. She keeps the mature Laura distinct from her 15-year-old self in both vocal and gestural expression. 

The physical production is well conceived. Brian Smith’s set indicates the walls of Mr. Wells’s office only by its vertical studs and bookshelves fixed some of those studs. When the mature Laura in relating a memory, Coates has her weave in and out of the studs as if the office were insubstantial. Once we are firmly within Laura’s memory the walls are treated as solid. Seth Gerry’s sensitive lighting is central in clarifying when we are in the mature Laura’s present and when we are deep into her memories of the past.

Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the great masterpieces of American literature because it uses Humber Humbert’s pedophilia as an intentionally distasteful metaphor for America’s obsession with eternal youth. Mamet’s Oleanna will always serve as a warning that left-leaning academics who grant infallibility to self-proclaimed victims can be just as destructive as right-leaning academics who do not. Napoli’s play begins with an intriguing question of what a teacher can do who is plagued with an infatuated student but degenerates first into an unrealistic May-December idyll and then into an unconvincing revenge drama. 

Putting Laura in control from age 15 to 25 does not empower her so much as reveal her pathological egotism. If Napoli means this to be a feminist response to Oleanna, she has not succeeded. Napoli has simply placed a troubled woman centre stage who learns nothing from her experience and, though claiming otherwise, still remains troubled ten years later.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Erica Anderson and Geoff McBride; Geoff McBride and Erica Anderson; Geoff McBride and Erica Anderson. © 2019 Andrew Alexander.

For tickets, visit www.gctc.ca.