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theatre review

Sam Kalilieh and Vivien Endicott-Douglas star in Rose Napoli’s new play Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann

Is genuine consent possible in a relationship in which one person has authority over the other?

When Bill 87 was passed in Ontario in May, stipulating that a psychiatrist must wait a year after a patient's treatment before getting involved romantically with that patient, some doctors deemed the moratorium too short, arguing that the distortion of power lasts much longer.

But there can't be much grey zone in a high-school teacher's sexual relationship with his underage pupil. Indisputably, there is no legal grey zone -- is there a different ambiguity therein that's worth contemplating for even a second?

This is the subject of Rose Napoli's new play, Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells), produced by Nightwood Theatre and now playing at Crow's Theatre in Toronto. It's the second half of the Consent Event, following the premiere of Ellie Moon's Asking for It earlier this month.

I can't help but think of this very accomplished, although uneven, play as existing in two parts: one that works, and one that doesn't work as well. This is despite Napoli's skill with emotional realism and director Andrea Donaldson's fine hand at delivering it. The first part feels so real that some moments were a bit excruciating to sit through.

The best of these – really the climax of the play – is when 15-year-old Laura (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) finds out that her English teacher, Mr. Wells, is married. She can't square this information with the romance she thought was blooming between them and responds in a way you might expect from an emotionally confused and overwhelmed teenager: She has a temper tantrum.

This scene plays in such a convincing emotional register partly because both characters' psychologies have been so intelligently drawn by that point. We've watched Laura and Mr. Wells (Sam Kalilieh) become close during their after-school creative-writing sessions. The rapport between them builds easily and naturally, subtly inverting the teacher-student status. (Donaldson cleverly makes the stage about as wide as a classroom aisle; if Mr. Wells wants to sit down, he has to use the student chair-desk beside Laura.)

Like many precocious and articulate kids, Laura's facility with language exceeds her grasp of its implications, and Endicott-Douglas plays this game well – testing what she can get away with, blushing when she's gone too far. Like a good and experienced teacher, Mr. Wells is used to managing this kind of adolescent provocation. Moreover, he's worried about his troubled and talented student; he likes Laura and recognizes that she needs a friend and some healthy, grown-up encouragement. He lets his guard down a little – after all, to be genuinely helpful, one has to show some vulnerability, too.

Napoli sets up an impressive, two-sided dramatic irony here. As the audience, we see and empathize with the misperceptions of both parties. We understand why a sexually developed 15-year-old would think that all the extra attention from her teacher – all the compliments and kindness – means her crush is reciprocated. We also believe Mr. Wells is a well-adjusted, principled man with zero sexual interest in his young student. Endicott-Douglas is so authentic when this misunderstanding comes to a head, blubbering and tearful before she suddenly starts to level crude sexual accusations at her teacher. Kalilieh is pitch-perfect, too, going from empathetic to agitated to a point of real distress. He knows what Laura's assumptions might look like from the office down the hall. He demands that she get out of his classroom immediately.

The problem with the play is what happens next: Laura and Mr. Wells begin a sexual and romantic relationship. His motivations are completely opaque, and the development simply does not cohere with the preceding action. They start sneaking around, hiding their affair from his wife and Laura's mother, having sex in hotel rooms while they workshop Laura's creative writing. While she keeps making sense as a character, and Endicott-Douglas continues to masterfully portray the naiveté/arrogance of adolescence, Mr. Wells is hard to believe from this point on. It would be one thing if he'd shown even a modicum of sexual attraction toward Laura – but, at this point, his decision to jeopardize everything for a student he has appeared to care about platonically simply beggars belief.

This incoherence points to a bigger problem: What is this play really about? Napoli uses a narrative framing device that suggests an intended answer. Laura is actually telling the story as a 25-year-old woman looking back on what happened and indicting her teacher for how it affected her. But the audience has never doubted her victimization, so for the play to be about her journey and discovery after the affair, 25-year-old Laura has to be much more central. She does comment on what she knows now that she didn't know then, on how much more confidence and agency she has in her sexual relationships. But we get these insights as little asides from Laura still dressed as a schoolgirl. Her tone is glib and artificial, lacking the emotional depth of the rest of the play.

Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) continues until Nov. 11 at Crow's Theatre in Toronto (nightwoodtheatre.net).

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The Canadian Press