The CTC’s first production of the summer is an unqualified delight.
I and You by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven. Staged by Chester Theatre Company at Chester Town Hall, Chester, MA, through July 9.
By Helen Epstein
Thirty-five year-old Lauren Gunderson is touted by the Chester Theatre Company as the most produced living American playwright of the 2016-17 season, so I was curious to see the troupe’s production of I and You.
The two-character play is an ingenious weaving together of sections from 19th century poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with a story about the relationship between two high school students accustomed to interconnective 21st century technologies, such as social media and life-saving medical procedures of the kind that fascinate film-maker Pedro Almodovar.
The plot device that brings Anthony bursting into Caroline’s bedroom is, however, low-tech — one of those joint book report assignments that progressive teachers like to assign nowadays to encourage student cooperation: the goal is for the two to come up with a presentation and poster about Whitman’s classic poem.
I and You is the third Lauren Gunderson play that director Kristen van Ginhoven has worked on. Her take on the characters – in this production indeterminately non-Caucasian – and their crisp quirky dialogue results in a persuasive glimpse of the world, language, and world-view of a certain group of middle-class American teenagers today.
Caroline is a senior, ill enough to be confined at home while keeping up with her schoolwork. She is alternately bored, angry, and sarcastic. Rather than use her vocal cords she texts to her mother downstairs; she hugs her pet turtle. She has been “sick pretty much since [she] was born” and recently, “on constant Red Alert.”
Anthony, also a senior, is an engaging but spectacularly unartistic basketball and sax player. He signed up to be Caroline’s partner on this poetry assignment and has decided to start working on it one day before it’s due.
For an American theater audience, and most other people who know teenagers or have been high school students themselves, this is close to a universal dramatic situation. What’s fascinating is not only how Gunderson finds significances here and spins them, but how the two actors charm each other and the audience into believing the relationship’s twists and turns.
In the past, the CTC has excelled at identifying excellent young actors for their productions, and I and You is no exception. Lilli Hokama, an Asian-American from Denver, brings a fierce pride and vulnerability to her role as the shut-in Caroline. She is a pleasure to hear and watch as she paces around her confined quarters and conveys how an initially unpromising connection with Anthony develops.
Paul Pontrelli, born in Medellin, Colombia and still a graduate student at NYU’s Tisch School, is even more fun to watch. He has the more gratifying role as the relaxed, charismatic figure of the piece. He luxuriates in the dramatic possibilities of being a teenage boy: he comes up with a very funny range of behaviors.
The set by Juliana von Haubrich (Caroline’s bedroom) and costumes by Stella Giuleitta Schwartz are perfect, as is the at-first puzzling Elvis soundtrack (sound design by veteran CTC designer Tom Shread), which slowly but surely becomes understandable. In that sense, the music is consistent with the rest of the play; a number of seemingly disjunctive elements fall into place as the action proceeds.
The CTC’s first production of the summer is an unqualified delight; the play’s unexpected, dramatically powerful ending will leave you reassessing all that’s gone before. I left understanding why the gifted Gunderson is so often produced, and why van Ginhoven has chosen to direct three of her plays.