by Macey Levin
Lauren Gunderson is the most-produced living playwright this past year. Her work has been seen in this part of the world at WAM Theatre (Emilie,) Shakespeare & Co. (The Taming,) and Aglet Theatre Company (Silent Sky.) Chester Theatre Company in Chester MA is currently presenting her I and You, filled with laughter and poignancy.
Caroline (Lilli Hokama,) a high school senior in need of a liver transplant, is confined to her home, preferring to stay in her bedroom. Having suffered through a series of illnesses her entire life, she is a fatalist and has willingly accepted that she will soon die. She is paid a surprise visit by another student, Anthony (Paul Pontrelli,) whom she does not know, and who informs her that they are supposed to be working together on a project about the poet Walt Whitman for their American lit. class. Due tomorrow.
Their initial meeting is adversarial, she being contentious and rude, while he tries to be sociable and charming, but his main concern is to finish a triptych poster and to prepare oral presentations (which she will record.) The assignment is to explore Whitman’s use of the pronouns “I” and “you” in his classic Leaves of Grass. Paul reads excerpts from the book, and Caroline, being virtually ignorant of Whitman, reluctantly allows herself to be touched by his poetry.
Throughout the book, which is constructed of several poems he had written over many years, Whitman’s thoughts change as he grows older. Though he extols the body and the material world in some works, he also praises the role of the mind or the spirit. A perspective Anthony holds dear.
“Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.”
He is concerned with living the life one now has, something Caroline has unwillingly accepted.
“There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor anymore youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”
And he muses over life and death, events that Caroline has pondered.
“Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.”
As the day goes on Caroline and Paul slowly reveal their lives to each other… their beliefs, family structures, the music they prefer, what the future holds for them.
Gunderson’s dialogue sounds prosaic, especially in this case where the central characters are teen-agers. But the exchanges, as pedestrian as they may be, move the play and characters forward. The banter between them is realistic and is typical of what one would hear in a high school corridor, including the four-letter words. But that, too, defines these two young people.
The actors are flawless. Pontrelli’s Anthony is charming with an ingratiating smile and winning personality. Yet he is earnest in his need to complete the assignment and to make it easy for Caroline to participate, but she has built huge walls around her. Hokoma’s Caroline fights to protect her solitude and to maintain her distance, trying not to allow Anthony or Whitman to touch her emotions or intellect. Indeed, the poet is an unseen character.
The play has been directed by Kristin van Ginhoven, artistic director of WAM. The pace never flags as we are caught up in the adolescents’ evolving relationship. She makes sure their conversations, which bounce between lightness and profundity, are examples of sharp timing and show growing emotional awareness. Van Ginhoven moves her actors easily within the confines of Juliana von Haubrich’s typically cluttered teen-age bedroom.
Stella Giulietta Schwartz has the actors in contemporary dress… she in sweats, he in windbreaker and jeans. Lighting by Lara Dubin and sound by Tom Shread add to the reality of the moment and the surprise ending that will leave you with an emotional jolt.
This is a beautifully written, affecting production.
I and You runs through July 9. For tickets: 413-354-7771
Chester Theatre Company presents I and You by Lauren Gunderson; Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven; Cast: Lilli Hokama (Caroline), Paul Pontrelli (Anthony); Scene design: Juliana von Haubrich; Lighting design: Lara Dubin; Costume design: Stella Giulietta Schwartz; Sound design: Tom Shread; Stage Manager: Keri Schultz; Running Time: Ninety minutes; no intermission; Chester Theatre Company, Town Hall Theatre, Chester, MA; From 6/28/2017 – 7/19/2017