Review: ‘I And You’ at Marin Theatre Company (****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“I And You” plays at Marin Theatre Company from October 10 through November 3, 2013).

“Up-and-coming San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson” is poised to become known as “significant American playwright Lauren Gunderson” as her reputation is exploding with a feature article in this month’s American Theatre Magazine and multiple major Bay area premieres of new work. She deserves all the attention, and with “I And You” she makes the transition from “promising new playwright” to “significant new playwright” with great grace. “I And You” is a wonderful play!

The premise of this two-character piece is elegantly simple: a sick teenager (Caroline, played by Jessica Lynn Carroll), unable to attend school, is visited by an unfamiliar classmate (Anthony, played by Devion McArthur) who has been assigned to work with her on a project of a class presentation about Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. Together, she and the young man explore the text and, in the process, discover both Whitman and one another (although the play never moves into the realm of explicit sex). The drama is heightened by Caroline’s life-threatening illness and Anthony’s intense desire to make an emotional connection. The pressure is further increased when Anthony reveals they have only one night to complete the assignment. Caroline feels driven to compensate for her illness with a perfect academic record, and Gunderson’s carefully crafted script makes us identify with that need to excel.

Devion McArthur and Jessica Lynn Carroll in the world premiere production of Lauren Gunderson's "I and You" at Marin Theatre Company. Photo credit: Ed Smith.
Devion McArthur and Jessica Lynn Carroll in the world premiere production of Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You” at Marin Theatre Company. Photo credit: Ed Smith.

The vibrant young people, the reality of Caroline’s illness and the intensity of Whitman’s poetry create opportunities for emotional fireworks. Playwright Gunderson makes full use of them.

One could argue that the extensive recitation of Whitman’s poetry is a bit of a copout for the playwright, but she has knitted the poetry seamlessly with the drama at hand and developed her characters with such care that she clearly earns the right to utilize Whitman’s language without being accused of exploiting it.

Gunderson achieves a fine balance between intellectual thrills, as the students grapple with Whitman’s meanings, and emotional engagement as they grapple with one another. The work is emotionally satisfying and also succeeds as an excellent didactic exploration of Whitman’s work. The result is engaging on multiple levels.

The two actors are excellent. They are particularly effective in reading Whitman’s lyrics in the manner of typical teenagers, unencumbered with any hint of obvious “acting” or “dramatic interpretation”. Their discoveries are our discoveries so that the audience deeply encounters not just two, but three powerful characters: Caroline, Anthony, and Walt Whitman.

The play also presents a mystery: why does Caroline’s mother never respond to her calls or otherwise check on her daughter? Why, if  Caroline has a life-threatening disease, does she not appear sicker? Why does her bedroom have no medical paraphernalia? Why is Anthony so driven to make a connection with a girl whom he has never met?

All of these interesting questions are answered in an unexpected surprise ending that left the opening night audience talking excitedly for hours after the show’s end.

The play is a clear artistic success, and I predict that it will be a commercial success as well. I’ll be very surprised if it is not widely produced over the next few years.  See it now, and catch a rising star.

For further information, click here.

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“I And You”, a world premiere by Lauren Gunderson, produced by Marin Theatre Company in association with the National New Play Network. Director: Sarah Rasmussen. Scenic Designer: Michael Locher. Lighting Designer: Wen-Ling Liao. Costume Designer: Maggie Whitaker. Sound Designer & Composer: Will McCandless. Properties Artisan: Seren Helday.

Caroline: Jessica Lynn Carroll. Anthony: Devion McArthur.

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