Lauren Gunderson’s recent prize-winning play, now receiving its regional premiere at Manbites Dog Theater, under the exquisite, transparent direction of Jeff Storer, is one of those rare artworks that exists on levels and levels behind the scrim of its apparent simplicity. Ostensibly about two teenagers working on a presentation on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for their American Lit class, the story takes place in the girl’s room (fine and detailed set by Derrick Ivey; excellent lighting by Andrew M. Parks). That setting allows the play to start with a simulacrum of intimacy, and the fact that the project is due in the morning injects an urgency that allows for true intimacy to unfold — the intimacy of two questing minds. The tension between the apparent, or virtual, and the actual persists throughout the play.
Caroline and Anthony are portrayed by Natalie Izlar and Gerald Jones III, high-school students at the Durham School of the Arts. They are both flat-out wonderful. According to director Storer, both young actors knew all their lines very early on in the rehearsal process, allowing the three of them to do what Storer calls “deep work.” That translated to acting so natural that it was difficult to keep in mind that we were watching a play — a play written with such acumen that its intellectual sophistication is nearly self-effacing.
Caroline initially appears to be just a difficult little bitch, especially in relation to charming bright Anthony. As the two struggle to get somewhere on the project, the poem’s powers and their own longings, dreams, and experiences draw out revelations and admissions that make them fully dimensional — to us, to each other, and to themselves. Lest you think this is all too serious, know that Caroline rehabs Anthony’s lame presentation poster with plenty of glitter, and their habits and linguistic styles are up to the minute — Caroline, for instance, texts her mother to bring her a Coke.
Anthony’s a serious, sensitive student, and he shows up at Caroline’s door with numerous quotes from Leaves of Grass tumbling from his lips. His first words to her are, “I and this mystery, here we stand.” Caroline hasn’t read the book. Understandably, she is flabbergasted by this mystery-talking. But, with Anthony pushing, she falls under its truth-spell, and in Anthony’s words, “totally gets it.” Her extempore analysis of Whitman’s use of pronouns — I and you and we and us — in teenspeak is riveting (and I forgot at that moment that it had been written by a highly-educated playwright, all of 32 years old). Anthony videos it with his phone, for their presentation, his face a rainbow of wonder and respect. A very beautiful moment in the theatre.
Anthony and Caroline’s story takes a turn that I won’t reveal. But once it rounds that corner, you realize that the clues were there. As I looked back mentally on each one, the image came to me of blades of grass springing upwards in a broad field flattened by a storm. As Caroline says, you have to look at the small things, that mostly we don’t notice.
I was more moved by, and more satisfied by, I and You than any play I’ve seen in the Triangle since PlayMakers’ production of Love Alone (by another Southern-born woman, Deborah Salem Smith) in February. I and You lets you lay your burdens down, that your soul may be light enough to rise on its column of love. Floating there, disembodied, you may remember that “your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
I and You continues through Saturday, December 20. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.