Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells): compelling, complex theatre of consent

mr. wells3
Celia Koughan as Laura in the Neptune studio theatre production of Toronto playwright Rose Napoli’s Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells), on stage to Feb. 24. (Stoo Metz)

Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) — a 90-minute rocket of a drama about an affair between a teacher and a student — is compelling, complex and thought-provoking theatre.

Now running at the Neptune studio theatre as part of Neptune’s season, it stars Halifax actor Josh MacDonald as a loveable, though flawed, English teacher and Charlottetown-born Celia Koughan as his precocious, emotionally-needy, talented 15-year-old student.

Toronto playwright Rose Napoli’s poetic, suspenseful narrative goes against expectations. It is not a simple, victim vs. sexual predator story.

Instead, Napoli goes into the grey areas so it’s less Harvey Weinstein and more all the news stories over the years of male and female teachers falling in love with students and vice versa and where all that lands.

Napoli’s play starts with Laura as a self-possessed 25-year-old looking back at the affair as she approaches Mr. Wells’ house to give him a copy of the novel she’s written about it.

The present and past are beautifully intercut as the story is told in quick scenes set in a classroom of yellow cement-block walls with a very important door that is left open or kept locked.

Neither character does the right thing. Napoli flips the story with creating sympathy at first for Mr. Wells and later for Laura. The audience is gripped by clarity and insight as it watches a train speeding towards a wreck.

This strong production, directed with great understanding and speed-control by Halifax director Annie Valentina, features very fine perfomances by MacDonald and Koughan in difficult roles.

MacDonald’s Mr. Wells is a goofy, kind man who loves books and writing and wants to bring out the best in his students. When the troubled Laura reveals her creative writing talent he pushes her to express herself. They start a friendly writing club – for two.

MacDonald balances the goodness in Mr. Wells with a much less appealing sexual side; his overall body language of comfort and control is very interesting.

mr.wells10Playwright Rose Napoli makes great thematic use of The Great Gatsby which Josh MacDonald as Mr. Wells reads to his student Laura in Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells). Stoo Metz

Koughan treads Laura’s complicated emotional line very well. The teenager is demanding, brilliant and desperate for love. Recovering from an attempted suicide and fatherless, she mistakes Mr. Wells’ concern for romance and pushes him hard into a forbidden world.

The chemistry – both sexual and romantic – between MacDonald and Koughan is deeply felt. The sex scenes have no nudity – thank God! – but are realistic and disturbing. (The actors worked with intimacy director Amanda Cutting, and the play comes with warnings of explicit language, underage sexual content and “simulated non-consensual intimacy.”

Leigh Ann Vardy’s hot lighting inside director Andrew Cull’s classroom with contrasting  dark, moodier lighting is part of a creative design that includes falling papers, Janet MacLellan’s apt costumes and sound designer Aaron Collier’s driving beats of heels on hard floors and booming door knocks.

This play will hit people in different ways depending on their experience. There is a warning that it may be a trigger for some people.

As a mother of a teen and also as an English major who had a crush on at least one high school English teacher – or two – I’ve been been lost in thought and likely will be for some time time to come. It runs at 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. weekend matinees to Feb. 24.

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