“I and this mystery, here we stand.” – Walt Whitman
I and You, a masterfully crafted play, exudes so much emotion and depth with little more than a static stage and a conversation between two high school students. Their dialogue, an unmistakably human exchange of words and ideas, moves swiftly between poetry and Facebook, photography and illness, death and music, plans for the future and being human.
The Kitchen Theatre Company’s production of I and You, written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Emily Jackson, moves fluidly and easily forward as the relationship between the two teenagers grows. Caroline, played by Anna Stefanic, is a homebody, bedroom-ridden by an illness that requires a liver transplant. Anthony, played by Ian Duff, appears in her room with a bag of waffle fries and a project about Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass due the next morning.
The stage is Caroline’s bedroom, complete with all the staples of a teenage room: an unmade bed, an over-crowded bedside table, a Harry Potter book lying sideways on a shelf, a pile of dirty clothes and errant socks continuously kicked around as the characters move about. Anthony, an unknown person to the continually absent Caroline, unexpectedly enters her space, and a relationship begins.
Stefanic and Duff are enthralling. Their pace is perfect as they talk like teenagers talk, relating to each other’s similarities and discovering and learning from each other’s differences. They move from light and erratic conversation to heavy topics, like the death Anthony witnessed earlier that day at his basketball game.
Not only do they use Gunderson’s words so well, they also hang on the silences. The awkward silences when meeting a new person sit thickly in the air, as Anthony looks to fill the void with some off-topic question or statement. Relatable quips bring laughter, and dark mullings evoke quiet sadness and sympathy. The actors’ delivery is so raw and the words so real that it creates a bond between the audience, a real investment in the characters as people.
The music of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, a four-part jazz album, becomes an element of the relationship when Anthony plays the first part, “Acknowledgement,” off his phone. They talk about plans for the future, where Caroline wants to go when she gets better — the first acknowledgement of something other than pain or possible death in the years to come. But also the first acknowledgement of friendship.
Whitman’s poetry is pervasive, as lines are recited as the characters work on their tri-fold poetry presentation. His musings on America, love and death mix into conversation as Caroline becomes less stand-offish and more appreciative of the esteemed work of poetry and Anthony. As Whitman’s words about the small things in love are recited by Anthony, the spark of attraction grows in Caroline. The play moves beyond the two becoming friends and into a relationship much deeper and inevitable among opposite-sex teens.
With no intermission, the play feels a bit like a whirlwind, but any sustained pause would ruin the train of Anthony and Caroline’s relationship. There are two less-than-30-second breaks to show a small passing of time within that singular night, effectively breaking up the play’s three acts. The third act becomes a pursuance of love; A Love Supreme‘s third part is “Pursuance.”
The characters have connected so deeply nearing the end that their lips have no choice but to touch, which leads into a radical ending. At first it felt cheap, but on the back of a concoction of Coltrane and Whitman, it felt right. Torn apart but still together, the repetition of “you and I” among tears and an embrace. Stunning silence as the lights fall.
I and You is a gripping jaunt through the emotional spectrum. Stefanic and Duff drive it forward with their energy, weaving an empathy-inducing tale of a fresh relationship, dipping in and out of frustration, happiness, sadness and anger. Their words and feelings are infectious, creating a play that works on every level, as simplistic as it may appear.
I and You is at the Kitchen Theatre Company in downtown Ithaca through Nov. 22.