by Sarah Haley
The Great Canadian Theatre Company’s final show of the 2018-19 season, Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells), brings to the stage another pressing story about the interplay of power dynamics within heterosexual relationships. Written by Rose Napoli and directed by Eric Coates, it is a captivating play that keeps you glued to the story despite its uncomfortable subject matter. While it masterfully brings together aesthetic elements that emphasize the themes of the play, it nonetheless suffers from a poorly constructed script that overlaps with the lighting, set, and sound design, and ultimately hinders the emotional payoff for the audience. It is a play about an unbalanced relationship, but the production feels overburdened rather than unbalanced.
Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) is a play (or more specifically book) within a play. It is the story of Lauren, who at age 25 finally writes the story of her relationship with her high school teacher: a relationship that ended ten years previously when Lauren was 15 and her English teacher, Mr. Wells, was 40. The narrative shifts between the present day Lauren who, through extended monologues, explains her high school state of mind and the unfolding of the relationship itself as if her novel has come to life. The play explores the inherent power dynamics in unbalanced relationships, specifically a relationship with a significant age disparity between the partners, through Lauren and Mr. Wells’ relationship that splinters and breaks causing chaos and wreckage: wreckage that is as unbalanced as the relationship itself.
Lauren and Mr. Wells, played by Erica Anderson and Geoff McBride respectively, star as the student and teacher who enter into a relationship after weeks of working together in a creative writing club. Lauren is very smart; it is clear that she sees herself as older than her peers. Old enough to be with an older man. Not only does she see herself as above her peers, she acts like it too. Many high school students may see themselves as more mature than their peers, but in reality, they never act more mature. This characterization makes Anderson’s performance feel unauthentic as if detached from the behaviours of a fifteen-year-old. It is a double-edged sword. This lofty portrayal of the high school student makes her crush on her teacher more believable. It is as though the perceived realism of the relationship proves to Lauren that she isn’t as young as her peers.
Yet because Anderson never shifts to portraying Lauren earnestly as a child, the imbalance of the relationship is never properly exposed. While she is underage and there is an inherent power dynamic in her relationship, it is never clearly articulated by either the playwright or the director. Anderson and McBride are always too smart for the imbalance in the relationship to really show. Yet this too is a double-edged sword. It is as if the Lauren of the past and the Lauren of the present are equally as mature and the possibility for character growth is stunted. This lack of character growth, however, is because there isn’t actually a separation between past and present Lauren. She is narrating her story and is superimposing her experiences as a 25-year-old onto her 15-year-old self.
It is worth pointing out that Lauren is an unreliable narrator. The story is told entirely from her point of view, it’s literally her novel played out across the stage. Yet she often lies, most notably when she denies ever answering Mr. Wells’ phone. This unreliable narration throws her whole perspective into question, as nothing about the story can actually be taken from granted. Structuring the story around an unreliable narrator has consequences. The script undermines the agency of actual sexual assault survivors who are rarely believed. Telling the story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator not only throws Lauren’s story and perspective into question, but it has serious implications in real-life cases.
McBride’s portrayal of Mr. Wells allows for his own character development. When Lauren and Mr. Wells first interact, he seems kind and caring. However, as his relationship with Lauren unfolds, the character of Mr. Wells becomes more and more involved with himself and the benefits he gets from this relationship. His involvement in the relationship is one-sided, purely so that he can feel “really fucking desirable.” McBride is able to shift from the kind English professor into the self-centered man who uses a young girl for some twisted form of self-betterment.
As Lauren and Mr. Wells, Anderson and McBride felt awkward. It is difficult to see them together at times because it doesn’t seem natural. They seem ill-suited for a relationship, but not because of the age gap or their roles as student and teacher, but because they lacked chemistry. Yet, that is entirely the point. It is not a story of star-crossed lovers, divided by age, but a toxic relationship fueled by a desire to be something more. Anderson and McBride easily tackled the physicality of the relationship; No doubt with the help of intimacy coach, Meagan Piercey Monafu. Anderson and McBride use the physicality of their relationship to emphasize the power imbalance in the relationship. Yet these moments of physicality are undercut by the 25-year-old Lauren’s thoughts, which unfortunately dissipates the discomfort the relationship cultivates. Sex is often implied on stage, but save for their first sexual encounter, the relationship focuses on the emotional side of their relationship.
Their physical relationship may be uncomfortable to watch, but it is important. This play is about a child predator and it is intrinsically tied to sex, not the mentorship of a budding writer. It is a story that is about sex and the resulting power dynamics; the sexual aspect of the relationship – and the dangers of it – should be emphasized, not their emotional connection. Giving the audience the relief of escaping the reality of the relationship through her monologues – many of which detail her more recent sexual escapades – does a disservice to the reality of relationships like this.
The lighting and set design, created by Seth Garry and Brian Smith respectively, are especially effective in cultivating the emotion of the scenes and emphasizing the uncomfortable reality of Napoli’s narrative. The set, which emulates a high school classroom, is stripped to its bare bones. Beams of wood surround the stage outlining the borders of the classroom walls, while rows of books are attached to the pseudo-wall as if suspended behind Mr. Wells’ desk. Clearly indicative of an English classroom, the stage is also reflective of the oppressive environment that high school can be. Hanging about the classroom are white boxes as if to represent both the rectangular ceiling slats and the fluorescent lighting of a school. This design compresses the stage, honing the attention to the classroom, trapping the eye to stay focused on the scenes that unfold.
The clever use of side lighting which shines through the ‘walls’ of the classroom works in a similar manner. Projecting the wood bars onto the floor, this lighting device emphasizes the constricting nature of the classroom and the relationship it contains. Furthermore, the bars and their projections are not unlike prison bars: a metaphor that is difficult to overlook.
The relationship between a student and a teacher is in itself both imprisoning and illegal. The only time Mr. Wells is not “behind bars”, the only time he is outside the boundaries of the classroom, is the end of the play. In the end, he escapes persecution and thus is free from prison and from his role in the relationship. Mr. Wells learns of his imminent arrest by the principal who calls him to warn him, in case “he needs to take care of any business.” That call is what allows him to destroy all evidence of the illicit relationship and maintain a status of innocence in the eyes of the law. It is a lazy escape from a difficult ending because it implies that his “innocence” was not because of the deep-seated issues that affect sexual assault cases (deep-seated issues like lack of substantial evidence, ‘victim blaming’ and ingrained sexism that accounts for less than half of assault cases resulting in guilty verdicts), but because of a too-conveniently-timed phone call. This bitter ‘resolution’ ties itself up to finally show Lauren as a victim rather than a participant, but it fails to tell an accurate story of sexual assault.
While Lauren does eventually escape the relationship, the reasons she is trapped in it are not properly explored. She brings up her absent father, perhaps as an explanation. She also tells Mr. Wells that she self harms and that ever since entering into the relationship, she has stopped. While it is possible that she conflates the end of her self harm with the start of her relationship, believing the relationship to be the “cure” to her illness, it is never mentioned again. It is a lost opportunity to focus on the story of a young woman who is attempting to navigate the world and instead focuses on the fact that a relationship exists between a child and her teacher. Because the story is unbalanced, the important message about consent and power dynamics is undermined by another narrative that revels in the fantasy and fascination with older man/younger woman relationships.
When staging and lighting are used so well to tell the story, it is disappointing that the script feels unbalanced in comparison. The production feels like it is shackled to the script. The story is intensely emotional, however, every thought and feeling is articulated by the actor’s words; It feels very much as though the playwright is telling the audience how they should feel about every interaction rather than putting the onus on the audience to reflect on and question the complex emotional relationship and themes presented to them. So, for example, in these moments, Lauren weaves between the bars of the classroom while delivering soliloquies that detail every thought that ran through her head at that moment as a 15-year-old student. This choice made by the playwright not only comes across as a way of unnecessarily spoon feeding this information to viewers, but it also feels a bit too perfect that 10 years down the road this individual can still recall moments down to the most minute details.
Yet, layered on top of her soliloquies, the lighting would often darken and instrumental music that mimicked a beating heart would play. The lighting and sound design in these scenes creates the anxious cacophony that perfectly conveys the emotions on the stage. Pairing it with the soliloquies, however, feels heavy-handed. It is as if the script could not trust the other theatrical elements to maintain the story without language. It is moments like this that gives the sense of “show and tell,” where moments could be left in silence but, instead, they are punctured by unnecessary monologues.
While Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) is a captivating production, it glosses over important issues and blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. The message of the play is often lost if there is a clear one at all. The performances and strong and the design of the production shows a mastery of visual and auditory storytelling, but the script tells a different story. The overly narrative voice and the hazy lines of the relationship flirt between fact and fantasy and obscure the important truth behind the story.
[Editor’s Note: if you or anyone you know has experienced sexual trauma or abuse, click here to find an extensive list of resources dedicated to crisis support within the Ottawa-Gatineau region]
Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells)
Written by Rose Napoli
Directed by Eric Coates
Performances by Erica Anderson and Geoff McBride
Playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company until May 17th, 2019.
Edited by Caitlin Gowans and Brie McFarlane
Sarah Haley is a student at Carleton University. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with concentrations in Medieval Studies and Theatre.