Two teenagers navigate love, youth and illness. Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews "I and You" at Olney Theatre Center.
"I and You" continues until March 30.
J. Wynn Rousuck's review
Walt Whitman’s epic poem, “Song of Myself,” figures prominently in the powerful new drama, “I and You.” This is the monumental poem in which Whitman wrote: “I contain multitudes.” It might seem difficult for a short, two-person play to make the same claim. But “I and You,” by playwright Lauren Gunderson, comes pretty close.
In just 80 minutes, this Olney Theatre Center premiere confronts immense issues: Coping with illness – of the life-and-death variety; the need to connect – a need that transcends all boundaries; and oh, yes, the power of literature. That’s where Walt Whitman comes in.
But don’t think that means “didactic.” “I and You” is highly accessible and its two characters [are] instantly recognizable to anyone who’s spent any time with teenagers.
The play starts with a teenaged girl, Caroline, dancing around her bedroom to loud rock music. When a boy she doesn’t know unexpectedly shows up, she starts screaming for her mother and brandishing a hairbrush like a weapon.
He introduces himself – he’s Anthony, from American Lit class. He’s here to work on a school project with her, quote: “A critical analysis of Whitman’s use of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘You’ in Song of Myself.” Caroline’s not happy to hear this.
It’s not surprising that Caroline doesn’t recognize Anthony. She hasn’t been to school in some time because she suffers from a genetic liver disease. But don’t feel sorry for her. She can’t stand pity or anyone being “nice” to her. She’s rude, cranky, suspicious and cynical. Actress Rachael Tice has these disagreeable qualities down pat – along with a thorough mastery of the cadences of 2014 teen-speak.
Thaddeus Fitzpatrick plays Anthony as a teenager whose personality is the opposite of Caroline’s. He’s genuinely nice and – here’s what drives Caroline really nuts – he’s wildly enthusiastic about everything from Walt Whitman to John Coltrane.
Director Eleanor Holdridge keeps the interaction between these dissimilar teens full of spirit, edginess, anticipation – all the awkward uncertainty of youth on the cusp of adulthood.
Anthony’s first words are a quote from “Song of Myself”: “I and this mystery here we stand.” Playwright Gunderson builds an overarching mystery into “I and You.” It takes the form of a surprise ending, but one that is organic and earned.
“I and You” is part of the National New Play Network, a program that supports “rolling world premieres.” Playwrights get to see at least three different fully staged productions of a developing play at theaters across the country – in this case, California, Indiana and Maryland.
Olney’s new artistic director, Jason Loewith, is the New Play Network’s former executive director; “I and You” is the second rolling premiere he’s brought here. This collaboration is sure to raise the theater’s national profile at the same time that it helps launch new plays and playwriting careers.
Some of that is already happening. Last month “I and You” has been named a finalist for two national new-play awards -- well-deserved laurels playwright Lauren Gunderson and this deeply felt, imaginative new work.
-J. Wynn Rousuck