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Tuesday, December 05, 2023
Gunderson’s play dives into ideas of life, death and time.

Gunderson’s play dives into ideas of life, death and time.

I and You conveys Whitman’s deep themes

The Forward Theater Company kicked off its ninth annual season with Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You” at the Overture Center’s Playhouse Theater. The play opened on Thursday, Nov. 2 and will run until Nov. 19 and, trust me, this is a show you do not want to miss.

The entirety of the play takes place in the attic-like, teenage bedroom of Caroline, a high school senior who hasn’t been to school in months due to a liver illness and is confined to the boundaries of her home. This all changes, however, when fellow student Anthony unexpectedly shows up bearing Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and waffle fries.

The play consists of only these two characters, and they magnificently carry the show. As the duo work on their American Literature project by dissecting Whitman’s usage of the pronouns “I” and “you,” we learn more about these two characters and see their relationship evolve. They reveal their aspirations in life and talk about dark topics, like death and fear of dying, like it’s completely normal. Caroline shares that she wants to be a photographer, to capture the good and the bad in the world and show it to people, while Anthony reviews the mysterious death of a basketball player that happened earlier that day and the two bond.

Caroline is played by Chantae Miller, a 16-year-old high school junior who brings a wonderful ferocity to Caroline. Alistair Sewell, 21, portrayed Anthony and did an excellent job making him the lovable, dorky character that he is. Though the two actors are young, they are immensely professional. They bring a maturity to this project that is rare to find, even in experienced adult actors. Occasionally, Miller’s performance would plateau in moments of anger and angst, but Sewell’s varied emotionality balanced this out, making them the perfect pair. The show is spectacularly directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, whose precise vision of Gunderson’s world is the reason that the play is so affecting.

As Caroline starts to warm up to Anthony, they both explore some of the main themes in Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”: life, death, the body and the soul, the self and time. I was wary of this initially and nervous that this would be another show trying to layer meaning into places it didn’t belong or didn’t exist. Playwright Lauren Gunderson, the most produced playwright in America in 2017, manages to masterfully examine these themes from a modern viewpoint within the context of these characters’ lives. She skillfully created a realistic world full of wit, charm, sorrow and fear that observes the fragile tissue of human connection. It is embedded with comedy, expertly delivered by the cast, which brought the energy of the show back up when it intermittently fell into the depths of despondency. The only flaw with the script is how seamless it is; I didn’t wholly feel like I was watching two high schoolers because high schoolers wouldn’t talk about death as fluently as these two characters did. There’s a level of discomfort and awkwardness that comes with these lofty subjects that didn’t necessarily carry through.

Part of what is so wonderful about this script is the character Anthony’s commentary on modern technology. Caroline lives most of her life online because being restricted to her bedroom leaves her with no other option, but when Anthony barges in, technology becomes a way for her to avoid intimacy and connection. Anthony doesn’t hesitate to call her out on this with lines like, “I came over in person … which people still do!” and “I will friend you [on Facebook] when I’m not actually in the room trying to be friends with you!” Additionally, the play reaffirms that the best way to get to know a person is having a face-to-face conversation; nothing matches the intimacy of being in the same physical space as someone.

The set is a beautifully detailed and realistic teenage bedroom, complete with books piled high on the shelves, laundry hanging out of the hamper, pictures collaged on the wall and pill bottles scattered in various sections of the room. The thoroughness and specificity of the set — every precise and measured detail — immerses the audience into Caroline’s world, which is limited to this single room. The intimacy of the smaller Playhouse Theater further submerges the audience into these character’s lives. The set also included string lights perfectly hung along the ceiling, completing the image. The light shining through the bedroom window imitated natural sunlight, producing an even more realistic look.

Because the show is an uninterrupted 85 minutes of these two-people talking, I expected it to be difficult to stay fully engaged; this was not the case. Miller and Sewell made the entirety of the show feel like one long, natural conversation, like if someone was to overhear it in the lobby of the theater, they would think that it was just a guy and a girl having an abnormally loud discussion. The two had such a regular back and forth; their reactions were believable because they were actually listening to what the other was saying, not just waiting for their next line. This is especially impressive when you consider they only had three weeks of rehearsal for this production.

Toward the end of the play, I started to get apprehensive. I could sense that the show was coming to a close and it felt incomplete, like something was missing, which didn’t make sense because the writing so far has been impeccable and basically flawless. The play couldn’t have a happy ending, where the boy gets the girl and everyone gets exactly what they want — there’s no nuance there, it’s too obvious. And then Gunderson hits you with the twist. I’m not going to say what happens because words couldn’t express the emotion and gravity of the situation or do it justice. It’s phenomenal, nonetheless, and wraps up the show just as I had hoped.

Just as Caroline attempts to capture the small things through photography, Gunderson captures that and much more with this play. “I and You” is a wonderful reminder of how theater can communicate the mystery of life and death, how things begin and end, while still giving the audience hope; how a completely real world can change in an instant and how a single person can have a lasting impact on a life. The show may be about the words “I” and “you” but, to quote director Uphoff Gray, “the magic of theater is in ‘we.’”

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