There is an astonishing turn of events toward the end of I and You, but let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about Walt Whitman instead.
Whitman was a revolutionary who overthrew poetry. He trashed the self-conscious, hyperstylized European tropes which had dominated the art and substituted something purely American: a rough, colloquial, muscular free verse which tumbled over itself like the streams and brooks of his Long Island home.
To Whitman, everything in the human experience was a glorious feast of the senses, which proceeded from the moment of birth at the speed of life. Indeed, to him the life force irresistibly moved forward, and could not be tamed by science, or politics, or religion, or anything.
This is important information for Caroline (Rachael Tice), a teenager with a bad liver. She is isolated in her bedroom, waiting with a fierce desperation for a transplant – standing in a line a thousand times longer than, say, the line for Syracuse-Virginia tickets. That bedroom – in Olney’s production, charmingly staged halfway between stuffed-animal childhood and adult rock-n-roll freedom, and blessedly free of medical paraphernalia – is both her prison and a womb in which she gestates her anxiety and despair. Caroline, who in a just universe would be fomenting rebellion against her parents, here suffers the rebellion of her liver against her.
Because she believes her sell-by date is coming up soon, Caroline is chary about friendship, much less love – and suspects every act of kindness as being an acknowledgment of her disease, and not of her. “Don’t be nice to me,” she warns Anthony (Thaddeus Fitzpatrick), a classmate who has come to her house for a project – thus giving him an impossible dilemma: the only way he can be nice to her is to accede to her demand and not be nice to her.
“Why are you impossible?” he asks
“It makes a shitty life a lot more fun,” she replies.
Caroline’s most urgent impulse is to reject Anthony; to push him out of her room and out of her life. Luckily for her, she is unsuccessful. Anthony is a useful fellow: he brings cookies and waffle fries, and he successfully puts her smoke detector, in the beeping throes of low-battery death, out of its misery. Most of all, he brings her Whitman – in the guise of a school project. With a deadline of – ulp – tomorrow, he begs her to help him transform a sad-sack poster he has created about the shaggy poet into something beautiful, to the credit of both of them. (Though home, Caroline continues to go to school on-line with the aim of graduating with her class.)
Caroline exudes an attitude of cynicism and disdain, the better to detach from a world she fears she is already beginning to lose. She professes not to fear death, but she is at every moment attempting to diminish the value and quality of her life, so as to lower the stakes when the moment comes. And yet, like all of us, she is full of irrepressible love and yearning – for the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, for the towering buildings of New York City, for her stuffed turtle, which doubles as a planetarium and is thus her contact with the stars.
Anthony, a young Coltrane-loving, basketball-playing African-American, is the antidote for all this. He is in love with Whitman because Whitman is in love with life, and so is Anthony. Anthony is more than a Whitman enthusiast; he preaches the gospel of Whitman to Caroline. Whitman, like other religious leaders such as Jesus and the Buddha, considers death a hoax. Anthony, quoting Whitman, says this: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses/And to die is different from what any one suppose, and luckier.” And this: “I know I am deathless.” And this: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”
In less competent hands, this material could become fodder for the Lifeline channel, but the prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson knows better than that. I and You, a finalist for both the Steinberg and Susan Smith Blackburn awards, is leavened with knowing wit, and Gunderson’s appealing characters have not forgotten the joy of being young, notwithstanding the savage circumstances of their lives. In Gunderson’s hands, I and You is not simply a play about super-articulate kids dealing with a horrible illness; it is a validation of the human experience, and of the triumph of life over death.
The two actors, under the sensible and sensitive direction of Eleanor Holdridge, show that they get the play, and the larger truth underlying it. Fitzpatrick gives us an Anthony who is both nerdy and wise, and though he is not cool he knows what cool is, and aspires to it when he can do so without doing violence to who he is. The fullness of his personality amuses and delights Caroline (“You are such a Senator!” she exclaims at one point), and Tice manages the transition from a girl who totally rejects Anthony to one who can impulsively kiss him on the lips (“I fell on your face,” she says, embarrassed) in a manner which is beautiful and beautifully convincing. In fact there is not a single moment where either of the characters are less than fully authentic, and as a result even the most astonishing developments come off as convincing and natural.
Before he leaves, Anthony gives Caroline an additional gift; it is small but, I think, it will suffice. So, too, for us. Gunderson’s gift is the best thing a play can offer: we might be better people after seeing it. That, too, suffices.
I and You by Lauren Gunderson . Directed by Eleanor Holdridge . FeaturingThaddeus Fitzpatrick and Rachael Tice . Scenic design: Dan Conway . Costume design: Ivania Stack . Lighting design: Nancy Schertler . Sound design: Matthew M. Nielson . Production Stage Manager: Becky Reed . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.