You would not think that a show about Walt Whitman, loneliness and liver disease could make this much sense.
But I and You, a two-character drama by Lauren Gunderson currently receiving its regional premiere at Circle Theatre, rings clear as a bell, and packs a wallop in the finish.
The play takes place in the cluttered bedroom of Caroline (Mackie Louis), which is pretty much her whole world, since years of illness have largely kept her out of school.
Into this sickly serenity walks Anthony (Nate Davis), a classmate of Caroline’s who needs help with an English assignment. Since Caroline neither expects Anthony nor knows who he is, she greets him with startled hostility. But once things are explained, Caroline begins to begrudgingly warm to Anthony and they set to work on a project examining the use of pronouns in the poetry of Walt Whitman (hence the play’s title).
In their interactions, we learn a great deal about the kids (Anthony is a jock with a strong father; Caroline is a bit more intellectual and relies on her highly supportive mother), as well as plenty about Whitman and a little about liver disease.
Not much more can be said about the plot without giving too much away. But suffice it to say that the process Caroline and Anthony work through is considerably more engaging than any high school English project deserves to be.
Louis and Davis, who appear to be only a few years older than the teenagers they play, are good individually and together. Louis is perhaps guilty of playing her character on a single note too often, but her approach can be seen as being justified by Gunderson’s script.
There was also a slight bit of stiffness in the early exchanges between the characters at Saturday’s opening-night performance. But things soon smoothed out and their dialog started crackling like fireworks.
Director Krista Scott, a professor in the theater department at TCU, where Louis is a student, guides this gracefully evolving work with a steady and sensitive hand. She builds to the show’s powerful climax with artfully invisible calculation.
Also worthy of note is Clare Floyd Devries’ garishly colorful set design, which helps us know Caroline before she ever speaks.
There is one negative to his show, but the good news is that it is easy to avoid: Following the performance, you will be invited to read an afterword written by Gunderson that is displayed in the lobby.
Don’t do it.
In that piece, Gunderson (who some may remember from her play Exit, Pursued by Bear, which Scott previously directed at Circle) tells us that this is a metaphor for that, and this really means that, and so on. She breaks down her own play like it was a high school English assignment, just as Caroline and Anthony do in her script.
This added information is, at best, unnecessary, and, at worst, insulting. Gunderson seems to be telling us that we are too stupid to understand what we just saw. And worse still, she robs us of the pleasure of figuring these things out on our own.
Any play that requires an explanation from the playwright to be enjoyed is not worthy of an audience. But this riveting piece of give-and-take is very much worth seeing — without an exit lecture from the playwright.