Pronouns are particularly important to every day grammatical use as well as to one of America’s greatest poets, Walt Whitman. And when the figurative ‘you’ becomes everyone and everything the profundity of new playwright Lauren Gunderson’s new work I and You settles in quite deeply. A part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premier series, Olney Theatre Center proudly presents this new play; an emotionally blind-siding work that takes you on a journey into the minutia of our lives through the lens of two young high school students. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge, this evocative new work is both emotionally disorienting and richly rewarding in its conclusion.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson takes bold risks in revitalizing the works of Walt Whitman in her own work, not only as a central focal point but as a parallel narrative for the overarching progression of the plot. Speaking to a new generation who would rather tweet their social lives and skim synopses online, Gunderson makes the elegant structure of Whitman’s work readily available and accessible in her play. Gunderson does an exceptional job of creating emotional nuances as well as stronger more obvious moments into the words of her work; carrying these characters on an explorative and heart-wrenching journey.
At first the characters of Anthony and Caroline seem to line a text book stereotype of teenagers in high school. The moody, angsty emo girl who has built a wall of bitterness around her inner soul because of her current outcast social standing; and the chipper, albeit nerdy and quirky, young lad who is obsessed with his schoolwork. Their personalities clash like oil and water and for a very long expository spans of the production it feels as if they will go nowhere in their relationship. Gunderson, however, drags out this stretch of volatile incompatibility so that when they do finally begin to relate to one another and work as one it has that much more of an emotional impact on the audience. The striking twists and turns along the progression of the rapid-paced work are astonishing, breath-taking, and mind-blowing. The ending is so perfectly crafted and slams at you with such an unexpected force that you’re left emotionally blindsided and stunned.
Director Eleanor Holdridge works carefully around the construct of this performance so that even the slightest essence of foreshadowing is swept up so intricately into the momentum of the production as to not give away the ending. Holdridge focuses on the emotional outbursts, keeping the tension between the two characters miniscule but present until it comes bursting out of them like geysers during epic moments of intensely concentrated dialogue. There is a brilliance in the pace at which Holdridge keeps the performance going, though there are moments where emotional outbursts are not allowed to fully live and breathe in the moment that they occur. Caroline’s ‘team Caroline sucks’ monologue and outburst is the main beat that comes to mind as she’s hardly had a second to recover from it before she’s back to the perfectly witty and snarky banter exchange with Anthony. Even just a second’s pause to separate the beats in this segment of the production would do the emotional depth of the text a great deal more justice than speeding through it at its current pace.
Scenic Designer Dan Conway creates an encroaching bubble for Caroline’s room. Covered in pop culture and references of the outside world, Conway’s dressing of the intimate space makes it feel tightly enclosed; a perfect reflection of the character’s situation. It’s the chaotic blend of bright colors on the bedspread and black and white photos and posters over the bed that truly encapsulate the whirlwind of internal chaos that Caroline experiences because of her secluded life. Having such strong thematic reflections in the set design augments the overall experience of the play.
Carrying the banter of two high school students can be tricky but Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, as Anthony, and Rachael Tice, as Caroline, have an exceptionally fluid working chemistry on the stage. Their relationship— from the caustic beginning to the heartbreaking end— is fully formulated and translates well to the audience. The way they respond to one another, be it in sparring spurts of awkward commentary or deeply moving words of poetry is captivating.
Tice is an extremely grounded performer, her strongest suit being the facial expressions that she uses to convey her internal turmoil during moments of silence or reaction. When she hits emotional peaks they well up from deep within her and burst out of the bitter and prickly façade she has constructed around her character’s deeply vulnerable and fragile soul. It is an incredible feat to watch her vacillate through an infinite loop of emotions that never cease to expand as the show progresses.
Fitzpatrick is in perpetual motion even when he is still; the internal energy vibrating at high speeds within him so that even a single look or toss of his head becomes fully actualized with this mobile quality. Equally rich in expressions he uses his limbs as an extension of his emotional outbursts, even when he is standing stone still with his fists hard down at his sides. A sensational performance given, particularly as the play approaches its conclusion.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.
I and You plays through March 23, 2014 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center— 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.