‘I and You’ – Life, Death and Walt Whitman at MRT (4.5 Stars)

“I and You” Written by Lauren Gunderson Directed by Sean Daniels; Presented by The Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA. Performances through Nov. 1st, 2015.

“I and You” is the story of two teenagers who meet over a High School English project about American writer, poet and philosopher, Walt Whitman. But while the story appears to be about the two teens, Walt Whitman’s presence is felt throughout the show through his words and imagery. If you are a fan of the poet, this is a must-see play. For the rest of us, who only vaguely recall being expected to read “Leaves of Grass” or some of his other poems, it is still a must-see because it is such a great play. Don’t let the prospect of a show about two modern teens put you off, as there were a number of seniors on their feet for the enthusiastic standing ovation this show earned.

The story centers on Caroline and Anthony. She has been home from school due to an illness and he is a fellow student who bursts into her attic bedroom – and her life – to announce that they have been teamed up to present the English project – which, by the way, is due the next day.

Caroline, after getting over her fear of Anthony and her own reticence about even doing the project, proves to be a very guarded and uncooperative partner, for reasons we will later discover. Anthony is energetic, persistent and totally enamored with Whitman and his works. Which is a good thing for Caroline, and for the audience as well, as the joy in the first half of the play is watching him slowly try to chip away at her resistance – to him, to understanding Whitman, and to engaging life outside her attic hideaway.

It’s not long before we come to understand that the illness keeping her from school is not as simple as a common cold, and it becomes clear that she is losing her fight and faith. It seems fitting that she resides in the family’s attic, as if she has retreated to this place, biding her time like some forgotten winter jacket that may never see the next season. But all around her we see walls covered in photos, some that she has taken herself and some of celebrities on magazine covers. They seem like windows to the outside world – and it is Caroline admitting that she is still interested in that world outside, a sign of her refusal to completely give up on the hope that she may possibly have a future out there someday.

Anthony has his own secrets, ones that are much harder to perceive beneath his intelligent, high-energy, curious and sensitive approach to life. His appreciation of Whitman’s earthy love of all things physical and natural is a reflection of his own personal style, and he has what Caroline needs to pull herself out of her ever-hardening cocoon and survive. Caroline’s initial reaction to Anthony is harsh and cynical, but she starts to soften when she learns that although he had seen something very disturbing at a school basketball game just that morning, he has nonetheless come to her house to try and work with her on their project.
At first it was a bit jarring to see that the pair (Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White) are clearly older than the high school characters they play, but that is soon forgotten thanks to the combination of the talented actors and the good ear playwright Lauren Gunderson has for current teenage vernacular.

While the draw for this play may be the well-advertised shocker of an ending (which DID elicit gasps from the audience), you will be glad you came, because after all, the play itself is the thing. The ending is just an interesting side note to a fun, moving and satisfying work. For more info, go to: http://www.mrt.org/show/i-and-you