Fort Worth — After splashing down at Circle Theatre in 2013 with Exit, Pursued By a Bear—an LOL comedy with a one-of-a-kind plot (husband duct-taped to La-Z-Boy, wife hoping for a hungry bear)—busy playwright Lauren Gunderson comes back into Circle’s orbit with I and You, a comedy-drama about a teenage girl who needs a transplant, and the boy classmate who visits her at home.
But before we can roll our eyes and moan “What’s this, an After-School Special?” Gunderson once again proves her originality and talent with a script that transcends the predictable. Surprising and fresh, and directed (to borrow a phrase from the play) “with verve” by Krista Scott, I and You is a multi-layered piece that teases at the mind and heart—and gives us a pair of authentically offbeat teen characters who will be hard to forget.
Talking about the story could easily give too much away, but here are the basics:
Caroline (Mackie Louis), whose health has been shaky all her young life, needs a liver transplant. While she waits, she can’t go to high school—so life, sort of, goes on within the walls of her bedroom. She’s painted the door with a mural of stars and planets, and posters of Elvis, Ansel Adams and other favorites crowd the walls, along with one too many drawings of her cat, aptly named Bitter. (Cheers to Clare Floyd DeVries for an evocative set that gets better as you zoom in on details.) It’s not a pretty princess room; it’s the den of a strong-minded, original girl living in limbo, between a childhood that’s gone and an adult future she may never have.
Suddenly, Anthony (Nate Davis) barges in. Caroline defends herself with a desk chair and screams for her Mom. But the guy has waffle fries—Caroline’s favorite—and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (You know, the “O Captain! My Captain!” poet from Civil War days.) How scary can he be? Anthony, a rangy basketball player at Caroline’s school, loves Whitman’s poetry but says he needs help with a poster about Whitman’s use of “I” and “you”—and didn’t Caroline get the e-mail from their lit teacher? “Who checks e-mail anymore?” she shoots back scornfully.
Caroline’s radar is telling her Anthony has come to cheer up the sick girl. “Don’t be nice to me,” she growls. “Nice is fake.” But she admits his poster is “tragic” and seems interested in how crazy he is about the shaggy-headed, rule-busting, scandalously sexy Whitman, who Anthony says is “wild and weird and truly not nice.”
Anthony loves Whitman because Whitman loves life—and like the poet, he believes that “I” and “you” are a “we” that goes on and on:
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses
And to die is different from what any one supposes, and luckier.
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you….
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles….
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Two smart, word-loving teens who quote poetry? They exist. Really. But all the same, there’s a slight sheen of unreality over this sudden bonding. It’s a friendship that might not have happened at a normal high school on a normal day—for one thing, he’s black and she’s white. But in the charged atmosphere of this confined box of a room, it all makes perfect sense.
Davis and Louis give remarkably honest performances that keep us fascinated, moved—and guessing—all the way through. She says he’s “such a Senator!” for his grown-up ways. He calls her “Cat Lady” and thinks she’s impossible. “It makes a shitty life more fun,” she deadpans. Caroline adores rocker Jerry Lee Lewis—a life force like Whitman—and Anthony introduces her to his man Coltrane. He takes care of her beeping smoke alarm; she fixes his poster. They trade sad stories from their lives—and dream of wandering the streets of New York one day.
Playwright Gunderson was quoted some time ago as saying that I and You, which won her the 2014 Steinberg Award, is about connection, about “the mystery of how we find each other.” Having claimed Caroline as a friend, Anthony is strikingly invested in her life and future. He won’t joke about her death—and won’t let her, either. He wants her to care, to want life and fight for it. And he promises to stick by her. “I won’t bail if you won’t."
Where does it go? We won’t say, only that Whitman’s expansive, death-defying verses become ever more connected to Anthony and Caroline, pushing into that small bedroom and expanding it outward in all directions. I and You is a different and rewarding evening.