We're too quick to categorize plays about teenagers as being only for teenagers, so it's important to mention up front that Lauren Gunderson's I and You, in a fine production by People's Light & Theatre Company, makes for a universally intense and touching drama.
Gunderson's taut script, winner of the 2014 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and a local premiere (though it’s been produced nationwide), accurately captures teenage feelings of alienation and uncertainty alongside exuberance and hope, as well as the miracle of first love, in three scenes occurring in one evening -- and uses Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself” to do it.
Anthony, played by Ricardy Charles Fabre, shows up in the bedroom of Caroline (Claire Inie-Richards, a People's Light company member), a fellow high school student. Her mother let him in, and since Caroline primarily connects with Mom via text messages, we never see her.
As is typical in two-person plays, much of I and You's 90 minutes involves revelation: Why hasn’t Caroline been to school in a long time, and why is she such a cynic? Why does Anthony appear the night before their poetry project is due, and why is he Caroline's surprise partner? And there’s much more. Caroline remains understandably wary, but Anthony persists, particularly about his fascination with Whitman, and their awkward, contentious relationship begins to grow.
Set designers Dylan Jamison and Will Scribner effectively realize Caroline's bedroom, which sits on a platform with audience on three sides. Girlish decor gives way to more mature artwork and interests. Both the set and Maria Shaplin's lighting harbor surprises for Gunderson's magical ending. I won’t reveal the details, but that final twist isn't the play's only payoff; to director Samantha Reading's credit, the developing relationship that gives the ending its emotional impact works wonderfully, and that's what really makes the play great.
Gunderson captures how teenagers like, you know, talk, but avoids clichés. They have their own idiosyncrasies, such as Anthony's penchant for throwing in Whitman phrases or his passion for jazz, and Caroline's use of "p.s." and, after that, "p.p.s." to introduce information, and her seriousness about glitter's qualities. The play sparkles with wit and emotional honesty, capturing that mercurial ability teens possess to change views and feelings with sudden intensity.
Gunderson, currently the most produced living playwright in America (though not yet much in the Philadelphia area), crafts a delicate, often funny, sometimes beautiful, and ultimately heartbreaking story, one that teenagers will like but which has a profound effect on older audiences as well. If I and You also inspires more interest in Walt Whitman, as it certainly has in me, that's a great bonus.