On the surface, “I and You” seems an amusing tale of two high schoolers working on a class project. But it’s a Manbites Dog Theater production, so of course there’s more. By play’s end, two impressively talented actors, under a master director’s hand, have progressed through Lauren Gunderson’s ever-deepening script to a thought-provoking new level that will have audiences talking long after it’s over.
The 90-minute one-act begins with Anthony’s unexpected arrival in Caroline’s room. She’s been out of class with a lengthy illness and Anthony’s been assigned to work on a project with her. Caroline’s suspicious coldness to Anthony, whom she doesn’t remember, is quelled only after he mentions that her mother let him in and the teacher had emailed Caroline about the project. (Caroline’s response of “Who reads email anymore?” is one of Gunderson’s many jabs at the current social media).
When Caroline learns the project is about Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” she flatly refuses to participate. But Anthony attempts to interest her with key passages about life’s mysteries and mankind’s universality. Caroline’s initial exasperation with understanding poetry is soon forgotten in light of Whitman’s strangely intriguing observations, softening her wise-cracking belligerence just a little.
The play’s provocative and moving effects depend on knowing the least about the plot’s development, so it must be noted that the description thus far is merely the set-up for much, much more. The richly satisfying results are due to Jeff Storer’s subtle, knowing direction of the teenaged actors, whose confident, multi-layered performances also reflect their Durham School of the Arts training.
Natalie Izlar’s Caroline epitomizes a typical loner’s defensive shell of sarcastic indifference that hides a desperate need to be loved, adroitly signaled through little gestures, looks and tones of voice. Gerald Jones III projects Anthony’s outwardly assured, upbeat personality well, while quietly communicating that all is not what it seems. The two easily shoulder the play’s weighty themes with admirable skill and understanding.
Derrick Ivey’s simple teen’s bedroom has secrets of its own, while Andrew M. Parks’ lighting and Shelby Hahn’s sound design have their surprises, too.
You can’t go wrong with Manbites, and this production simply re-affirms that conviction.