Chicago Theater Review: I AND YOU (Redtwist)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 30, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Winner of this year’s ATCA Steinberg Award, Lauren M. Gunderson’s I and You is even more a gift to actors than to audiences. Her taut, 85-minute, two-character drama offers loud and lively exchanges between teenagers Caroline and Anthony. They are mired in adolescent angst and pubescent pipe dreams but blessed with impulsive honesty. At its best I and You demands no-holds-barred, combustible, and open-hearted performances from two cunningly contrasted young souls who don’t know the meaning of subtext.

Rejinal Simon & Grace Melon in Lauren M. Gunderson’s I AND YOU at Redtwist Theatre.

Happily for Redtwist Theatre’s Chicago premiere, director David Prete found two spontaneous (and sometimes overly intense) young actors to go fast and furious into the title roles. Their (occasionally forced) energy can often pass for eloquence and each feeds off the differences in the other’s temperament and mystique.

Grace Melon and Rejinal Simon in Lauren M. Gunderson’s I AND YOU at Redtwist Theatre.

The putative setting is 17-year-old Caroline’s bedroom, an enclave or exile that testifies to her love of Elvis and enshrines her beloved toy turtle with a constellation on its shell. It’s also a sickroom: Caroline is nearing the end stages of a failing liver. Her father abandoned his ill daughter. Her mom is an irritation. The cascading calamities have made Caroline into a now-willing recluse too alienated to answer her email. Her one pleasure is losing herself in John Coltrane’s jazz riffs. The understandably cranky girl is prickly, defensive, combative and utterly averse to anyone’s niceness—which she takes as pity. Any resemblance to Tennessee William’s frail and crippled Laura with her glass menagerie is utterly unavoidable.

Rejinal Simon and Grace Melon in Lauren M. Gunderson’s I AND YOU at Redtwist Theatre.

Into this self-made shelter, ripe with anxiety attacks and reflexive depression, comes Caroline’s “gentleman caller.” He’s a total opposite. Athletic, extroverted, and African-American, Anthony is a virtual stranger, suddenly here to help them complete a class project (Caroline is schooled from home) that’s a presentation and a poster on Walt Whitman. Refusing to hobble Caroline with false compassion, this vibrant visitor works overtime to break through her many shells. (she’s outdone her toy in this respect). Pleading “Why are you impossible?” he tells her to “defreak” herself and join him in completing “Team Caroline.” To put her problem in perspective, he tells her about the basketball game he just played where a boy suddenly died of a heart attack. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to affect him.

Grace Melon & Rejinal Simon in Lauren M. Gunderson’s I AND YOU at Redtwist Theatre.

Instead, as quirky and spunky as Caroline, Anthony wants to “keep it real.” His secret weapon is to share his passion for Whitman, a “fearless” bard for whom the body is always sacred and death is only “different.” He tells how, after writing Leaves of Grass, this troubadour of the “barbaric yawp” tended wounded soldiers during the Civil War (much as he is ministering to this invalid). He reads to her from the collection, and in time she will deliver a video lecture on the poet’s changing meanings for “you.” By play’s end the title, taken from the verse, suggests unity, not division.

But it’s a very literal unity. It comes out of nowhere and may suspend a bit too much disbelief. Above all, it proves how much Anthony’s opening line (drawn from Walt), “I am a mystery” is only too true.

Grace Melon & Rejinal Simon in Lauren M. Gunderson’s I AND YOU at Redtwist Theatre..

Compensating for Gundersen’s incredible debt to Tennessee Williams for the candlelit scene, situation and pep talk that fuel I and You, the author finds a very different tone for the talk. These very natural kids chat and scream just like 2014 teens. Grace Melon and Rejinal Simon make much of the cute, earthy shock-effects embedded in their dialogue. Their lines could double as so many texts and their eventual affection feels very unforced. Opposites can attract in so many ways and this contrived affinity is, whatever the author’s larger vision, completely convincing from minute to minute. Only at the end will you wonder if, taking it to the next level, Gunderson went a bridge too far.

photos by Jan Ellen Graves

Grace Melon in Lauren M. Gunderson’s I AND YOU at Redtwist Theatre.I and You
Redtwist Theatre
1044 W Bryn Mawr
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on January 4, 2015
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