For a personal two-hander about a gravely ill teenager’s transcendental reflection on life and death through the lens of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, you need to have empathetic actors who make you care about the characters without becoming maudlin. People’s Light has them, for its Philadelphia premiere of I and You by Lauren Gunderson. Under Samantha Reading’s clear-sighted direction, Claire Inie-Richards and Ricardy Charles Fabre turn in irresistible performances that capture the challenging theme with youthful ardor, attitude, and humor, while conveying a joy in discovering the uplifting beauty and wisdom that is to be found in art, and in our interconnectedness with each other and the universe.
Because of her chronic illness, Caroline is unable to attend high school, but keeps up with her studies at home and keeps connected with her family and friends via texting and social media, while awaiting a liver transplant. Anthony has arrived unannounced in Caroline’s bedroom, he tells her, to enlist her help with a class project on Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” for which he has chosen her as his teammate. Though she doesn’t remember him and is startled that he’s there, they get to know each other over the course of the day and find that they have more in common than they ever would have imagined, since they seem to be different in every way – gender, race, health, interests, and demeanor.
He is gentle, intellectual, and athletic, a basketball player with a love of John Coltrane’s modern jazz and Whitman’s poetry. She is acerbic, artistic, and physically fragile beneath her tough exterior, with a penchant for vintage Elvis movies and the rock-and-roll of Jerry Lee Lewis, to which she dances with reckless abandon. Both are intelligent and articulate, vital, complex, and achingly vulnerable, and both are played with authentic emotion by the excellent Fabre and Inie-Richards, as they enlighten each other and face their situation with increasing openness and growing camaraderie, up to the play’s final surprising conclusion.
Costumes by Bridget Brennan are appropriate to the age and personalities of the characters, and sound by Christopher Colucci and lighting by Maria Shaplin bring their story to life. Set designers Dylan Jamison and Will Scribner have created an intimate space for the dialogue that is at once realistic and symbolic, with the audience seated around three sides of a colorfully cluttered bedroom, with Caroline’s original photographs hung on the walls, and with the stuffed animals of her childhood giving her something to hold onto in her internalized despair. Her favorite, a turtle planetarium with a hard shell that lights up to project the heavens, serves as a metaphor for the girl herself, and for Whitman’s espousal of the inextricable communion of all things.
I and You has much to offer and will leave you with much to consider while being entertained, not the least of which is the importance of organ donation to save the lives of real people in need like Caroline.
Running Time: 85 minutes, without intermission