Two teenagers hang out and talk—supposedly about a school project—but end up connected in a much more profound way in Stages Repertory Theatre’s I and You, which was written by playwright Lauren Gunderson and won the prestigious Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award in 2014.
The setting for the play is perfect, with pictures of cats and selfies decorating the walls of a teenage girl’s room, and of course, all the accoutrements you might expect for a “normal” teen. But nothing is normal for this young woman named Caroline (convincingly played by Melissa Molano) who suffers from severe liver problems.
Caroline is out of school and at home when her classmate Anthony, played by Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott, appears to help with a school project focusing on poetry. It is at this point that the play references Walt Whitman, the famous 19th-century poet associated with Transcendentalism and his famous first-person work, Leaves of Grass. Whitman believed that people are all connected in a cosmic and divine way, and the play employs this belief in an imaginative and surprising fashion—though, it is not revealed until the very end of the drama. It would be too much of a spoiler to give it all away, but I and You scenic designer, Jon Young, creates a wonderful visual effect that dovetails well with both the direction and the actors.
Molano and Mpinduzi-Mott are both impressive and convincing as teenagers, which is a hard act to pull off. Since it is only a two-person show (with no intermission), they play well off each other, as Caroline is initially resistant to Anthony’s overtures of friendship, her illness having taken a toll on her life. Anthony is persistent, showing her the genius and humanity of Whitman’s poetry, and using Whitman’s lyricism to soften Caroline’s defenses.
I and You is set in current day Houston, “or a major American city like it,” and so we are able to imagine these teens are from a big urban or suburban high school, where personal connections can be daunting. Although it's not stated if they are from the same institution, the audience is led to believe that they do, despite their lack of a friendship.
And why the preoccupation with Whitman and Leaves of Grass? Director Seth Gordon explains that “the poem suggests that, even during this extraordinary time of conflict, we are all one, connected in some deeply spiritual way." He further adds that "we are connected not only to each other, but to the world as a whole. We are connected to and with everything, even with the leaves of grass between our feet, grass that grows throughout the world.”
The audience doesn’t realize how high the stakes are between these two individuals until the end, which is dramatically surprising in a way that is simultaneously sad and uplifting—a challenging emotional combination to pull off. Luckily, we come to care about Caroline and Anthony enough for this to happen.
Gunderson’s play elucidates how we think of ourselves as separate individuals, and how, instead, we should live out the words of a highly experimental poet who took big risks on the page. I and You asks us to remember that we are all part and parcel of a larger cosmic order that emphasizes a profound connection versus separation.
Through May 22. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. $19–$54. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., Ste. 101. 713-527-0123. stagestheatre.com