I & You and the unexpected twist

Boy meets girl and both meet Walt Whitman in Artists Rep's newest. But what about that surprise jolt before it ends?

I and You, the Laura Gunderson play on the boards at Artists Repertory Theatre, is about a couple of teenagers meeting cute and doing their homework. It also is about life and love and death, the transcendent beauty of poetry, and the grand mysteries of existence and connection. I and You is a play with next to nothing in terms of action. It is also a play in which events of the utmost consequence take place. I and You feels wonderfully charming yet slight. It also feels profound yet more than a little irritating.

That this one-act play can have such a dual nature — and such a contradictory one, at that — is due in large part to a surprise narrative twist, very late in its 90-minute run time, that radically alters our understanding of what’s come before it.

But first, there’s a project due for American lit class.

Emily Eisele, Blake Stone, and Walt Whitman in the bedroom. Photo: Russell J Young

Anthony shows up out of the blue, through the bedroom doorway of Caroline. They’re high school classmates but don’t know each other, in part because Caroline has been increasingly ill and is studying (somewhat half-heartedly) from home while she awaits an organ transplant. Anthony arrives unannounced to collaborate on an assignment Caroline hasn’t even bothered to notice, a presentation on the use of pronouns in the poetry of Walt Whitman.

The two are, of course, presented as opposites. She’s white, he’s black. He’s studious and athletic, she’s indifferent and isolated. She’s suspicious and sarcastic, he’s open-hearted and good-natured. Using his natural charm and his innocent excitement about Whitman, Anthony slowly breaks through Caroline’s brittle shell of cynical humor. In fits and starts, our odd couple move toward mutual acceptance and understanding, comfort and connection.

From the outset, Blake Stone is wonderfully engaging as Anthony — relaxed, transparent, convincingly in the moment. And though Emily Eisele at first appears to be trying a bit too hard, we soon see that’s just Caroline’s worked-up defensive posturing. Under the sure-handed direction of JoAnn Johnson, everything proceeds smoothly, hints of looming mortality as well as garden-variety teen angst leavening the lighthearted charm offensive.

But after awhile you get the feeling that something must be hiding in plain sight. The “will they or won’t they?” romantic undercurrent points too obviously in one direction, and apart from the pair developing what looks like a successful presentation on Whitman, not much else really seems to be happening.

And then, that twist.

My immediate response, frankly, was a mixture of disappointment and irritation at what struck me as a cheap trick, an unearned resolution, a kind of literary cheat code. I’ll try not to play spoiler here, but suddenly what’s felt like a rom-com looks instead like a stealth ghost story —  or a hallucination, a premonition, a fever dream. Or maybe a bit of a theatrical con job.

Having thought about it for days, it still galls me, on a certain level. And yet, the more I ponder it, the more ingenious it seems, too: the way it deepens the connections between the story’s plot and concept and their inspirations in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; the way the slightly-too-wise teen dialogue suddenly makes more sense; the way tiny details (such as the annoying beep of a fire alarm) take on new meanings in retrospect; the way it brings a greater meaning (if we extrapolate from the values being espoused) to Gunderson’s insistence in the play’s casting note that the characters be of different races.

In hindsight, you’ll be able to see the clues littered along the way, making it all feel of a piece (an effect aided, no doubt, by Johnson’s keen attention to pacing and mood, and to the deft blend of soft colors and jagged edges in Tim Stapleton’s scenic design). The greatest clue, of course, isn’t a spoiler but the heart of the matter, the piece of Whitman’s text that the two discuss the most. So as you enjoy I & You  — as I did and suspect you will — pay particular attention to this passage from verse 52 of Song of Myself:

 

“You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;

Missing me one place, search another;

I stop somewhere, waiting for you.”

*

I and You continues through June 17 on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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