Monday, November 02, 2015

"I and You" at the Rep Studio shows our surprising connections with each other

Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
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Lauren Gunderson's comedy/drama "I and You" at the Rep Studio is a kind of dramaturgical magic trick. For most of its 85-minute length it looks like a conventional (but sharply written) buddy story about a pair of teens who find unexpected connections and friendship while working on a school project based on Walt Whitman's visionary poetry collection "Leaves of Grass."

And then Ms. Gunderson pulls the rabbit out of the hat and shows us (to quote the Firesign Theatre) that "everything you know is wrong." The fact that she does this in a way that is entirely plausible and consistent with everything that has gone before is a testament to her strength as a dramatist. Like "The Usual Suspects" or "The Sixth Sense," this is a drama in which The Old Switcheroo is simultaneously startling and inevitable.

Homebound as a result of a life-long liver ailment, high school senior Caroline is moody, cynical, and as spiky as a porcupine. She's waiting for a liver transplant but doesn't know whether it will come in time and whether or not it will work if it does. When classmate Anthony—an honor student, athlete, and (as Caroline wryly observes) the "perfect son"—burst into her room with the news that they're now partners on the Whitman project, Caroline's first reaction is high-energy resentment coupled with a determination not to like him.

Photo: Jerry Naunhiem, Jr.
As the play progresses, Anthony's unfailing optimism, compassion, and insight wear down Caroline's defenses. As they explore Whitman's core message about the interconnectedness of all life, they find their own connections and learn that their differences might not be so great after all. There's even, towards the end, the suggestion of a budding romance.

And that's where I have to stop talking about the plot. Suffice it to say that the ending is as touching and human as it is surprising. It also explains why the program includes a fascinating essay by Madison Finley on Gunderson's use of science in her plays. How is a play about two teens bonding over Walt Whitman about science? Sorry, I can't tell you without spoiling that ending.

I can tell you that "I and You" is not only thought provoking but also expertly acted. Although she's several years older than her character, Danielle Carlacci could not be more credible as Caroline. She's a petite ball of energy, raging against the darkness that has tried to consume her since childhood. I suspect that Caroline's defensiveness could become annoying in less skilled hands, but Ms. Carlacci never falls into that trap, which makes her final moments on stage that much more touching.

Reynaldo Pinella does full justice to Anthony's blitzkrieg charm as well as to the darker side that emerges in (for example) his story of a tragedy at school. He shows us Anthony's kindness as well as his exuberance. Like Ms. Carlacci, he delivers a well-rounded and utterly real performance.

As she did with her Studio production of "4000 Miles" back in 2013, director Jane Page demonstrates a keen eye for movement that clarifies and enhances character as well as a fine sense of pacing and timing. Eric Barker's set design perfectly captures Caroline's chaotic and creative room. John Wylie's lights, Rusty Wandall's sound, and Marci Franklin's costumes all help sustain the illusion.

Will "I and You" continue to have a life long after familiarity has taken the edge from its surprise ending? I suspect it might. To pick a sharply contrasting example, everybody knows how "Angel Street" (the Rep's current mainstage show) ends, but that hasn't diminished its impact or its popularity. A script like this one that plays fair with the audience and offers so many intelligent insights stands a good chance of being something other than a one-trick pony.

And besides, we all love a good magic show, even when we know how the tricks are going to end.

The Rep’s dedication to new works in its Studio series is a fine thing and, at least since I’ve started attending them regularly, the hits have far outnumbered the misses. "I and You" is unmistakably a hit, and I strongly encourage you to see it. Performances continue through November 15 in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information:

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