I and You by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Sean Daniels, is an intricate, humorous and profound work whose delicate metaphorical undertones echo in one’s mind long after the lights go up. The production by the Merrimack Repertory in association with Richard Winkler is at 59E59 Theaters until February 28.
The premise initially appears simple: Anthony (Reggie D.White in a heartfelt, powerful and moving performance), a classmate of Caroline (Kayla Ferguson, all hyper, shrill and cryptic teenage anxiety), drops in to work with her on a homework project about Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Anthony introduces himself with the fascinating Whitman line from “Song of Myself,” “I and this mystery, here we stand.” He attempts to use the enigmatic phrase to wheedle and charm Caroline into helping him on the project.
Caroline, who is annoyed at the unexpected visit of this stranger, is abrasive and inhospitable. She reveals to Anthony one possible explanation for her flippant, nervy and defensive attitude to Anthony: She has been physically debilitated most of her young life and her sickness oftentimes keeps her sulking and skulking in her bedroom. Anthony assures her that an email from their teacher requires their team effort on Whitman. Diverted by Anthony’s intellectual quickness and his acute and continual changing of subjects, she doesn’t check to verify his story and allows herself to be quasi-persuaded that he stay and receive her help.
Anthony’s final coup-de-grâce to secure her aid culminates in his passionate rap-like recitation of lines from “Song of Myself,” in which the speaker compares himself to nature’s spotted hawk: “I, too, am not a bit tamed; I, too, am untranslatable.” These lines represent the mystery and rebellion of teenage-hood and strike a chord in Caroline’s mind and soul. She becomes enthusiastic about this poetry which Anthony says “floats off the page,” and enjoys is oogling-fan description of Whitman as “legit crazy, like a rambling, crazy homeless guy, but in this genius kind of way.”
Anthony has made Whitman a super-cool modern to be appreciated. He has also won Caroline with his endearing cuteness and flexibility to bend with “the flow” of her demands. His good will and direct brilliance are “too good to be true.” Working with him, Caroline may receive the hope and inspiration that she needs to soothe her spirit.
Gunderson’s characterizations of Caroline and Anthony reveal individuals who are at opposite ends of the spectrum of personality: Caroline appears to be negative, embittered, burdened by life’s troubles, afraid to hope. Anthony appears engaged and replete with life, upbeat, a dynamo of energy and happiness. Their likes are disparate as they learn about one another and discover issues they’ve faced and must overcome. The playwright cleverly moves us away from our uncertainty of how this divisive pair could ever spend time in the same room and gain consensus in a working arrangement. She gradually shifts us to picturing the budding beauty of a sensitive and sweet relationship that portends fulfillment between them. To illustrate the journey of their growing intimacy, Gunderson sprinkles liberal portions of Whitman’s poetic lyricism which convey his resounding themes about life, spirituality, our shared democratic humanity, nature and eternal connectedness. This is not only fuel for the characters’ souls, it is regenerative for us as well.
The dialogue is clever and thoughtfully rendered. For the most part the direction is well paced, though in the middle there was a tell-tale dead spot that lulled the import of the conversation between the characters. This might have been a fault of the staging. But it was in a few brief moments that the actors lost some of the dynamism of their otherwise sterling performances. And this valley was compensated for by the play’s spellbinding conclusion. Perhaps there is always a quiet silence before a great cataclysm of understanding.
The artistic design of the sets and props was exceptionally rendered and ingeniously expressed Caroline’s character through her room’s picture collages, the lighting through its fantastical, lyrical and unusual permutations. Their specificity indicated a level of playful fun, whimsy and hope of a teenager whose life has severe limitations. The clever use of her star-light projecting turtle in an effective moment was a formidable but quiet symbol. The set maximized the impact of the thrilling conclusion. Indeed, all the elements including the characters’ selection of favorite songs, i.e. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire,” express Whitman’s messages: 1. We care for each other in the supernal and eternal bonds of spirit and soul. 2. It is the great gift of our humanity to love and be thankful as we envision the ties among our humanity, the natural world and the spirit of God bonding all.
By the end of I And You, Gunderson’s message is Whitman’s message. Both are truly smashing. Don’t miss this great production at 59E59 Theaters which runs until February 28.