Caroline and Anthony are partners on a project analyzing the use of I and you in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. On the surface the two have little in common as Anthony is cheerful, laid back, and outgoing while Caroline is sickly, angry, and seems unable to communicate outside of social media. As they analyze Whitman’s poem, they begin to peel back their own layers to fully reveal each to the other and a friendship grows between them. . .and perhaps something far more. This is I and You by Lauren Gunderson and currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.
Lauren Gunderson has crafted something truly original with this play. It is a slice of life in its purest sense. The play eschews the normal narrative style. Instead it relies on a powerful sense of voice as the construction of the dialogue is purely conversational. There doesn’t seem to be a plot as the two characters engage in ordinary conversation. Yet through this conversation you see the bonds of friendship come into existence and strengthen. A nice touch to the story is how Ms Gunderson makes the two characters two sides of the same coin. Each is nearly a polar opposite in terms of personality, height, gender, race, and philosophies. In spite of these surface differences, one finds they have much in common as they slowly show their real selves to the other. The play also contains one of the most satisfactory endings I’ve seen in almost any show.
Barry Carman provides a very fine piece of direction to this work. His staging is of superlative quality as his actors stay pretty far apart from each other when the show begins to show the gap between them. But they physically move closer and closer to each other as their friendship grows. His understanding of the script is both deft and delicate as he knows how to get his actors to hit the beats just right so the discoveries always pop with surprise. Carman has also led his two performers to sterling characterizations.
Early in the show, the character of Caroline refers to herself as “small, but mighty”. However, small, but fierce might be a better descriptor. In the hands of Anna Jordan, the character is simply acting gold. Ms Jordan brings a real sense of anger, distrust, and determination to the role. Caroline suffers from a bad liver which has kept her a virtual shut-in for most of her life. Being cut off from the outside world has kept her away from a lot of joys in life. The nuances of face to face conversation elude her as social media is her primary means of communication. Pleasures like reading seem to be anathema to her as she’d rather google things. She’s resigned herself to being alone and dying young, though what she wants is to be out in the crowd and living life.
Ms Jordan’s physicality is tremendous as her anger manifests in her rigid, rodlike posture and body language. So ever present is her anger that this physicality is used even when she is having fun like dancing in her room which was one of the show’s highlights. As Anna loosens and opens up, so, too, does her physicality. Her movements become more fluid and culminate in a rocking air piano solo to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”.
Jordan Isaac Smith keeps pace with Ms Jordan with his own excellent portrayal of Anthony. Where Caroline is tight and withdrawn, Anthony is completely loose and open. Smith’s physicality is almost gliding as he practically floats around the room, especially when he is gushing over the work of Walt Whitman. He gives a very convincing portrayal of being a good kid. He’s close with his family, gets good grade, and is popular. But he also does fine work in playing typical teenage behaviors such as his sheepish looks and delivery when he confesses to Caroline that he’s put off this project until the last minute.
Smith is equally skilled at playing the heaviness of Anthony as well as his lightness. Though Anthony is a pretty happy person, he does carry his own well of sadness that he slowly reveals to Caroline as their friendship grows.
Martin Scott Marchitto has designed a stellar set for this show. It truly looks like a typical teen’s bedroom. His set is further enhanced by the properties of Amy Reiner. Few can dress a stage like Ms Reiner as her properties of books, toys, records, computer, and furniture add to the messy, lived in quality of this room. Josh Mullady’s lights add their own brilliant life to the show. Especially impressive are his use of planetarium lights from Caroline’s toy turtle and the subtle transition from light to dark to light during a moment of awakening in the show. Molly Welsh’s sounds blend so smoothly into the show that you are sometimes unaware of their presence until powerful moments end and you realize the sound was adding to the moment.
The play’s narrative style may catch a few off guard as it doesn’t follow the ordinary path of a story, but its utter realism and naturalism are crucial to the unfolding of this tale. With sure and stable direction combined with a pair of potent performances, I and You is another winner in the Blue Barn legacy.
I and You plays at the Blue Barn through Feb 24. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm performance on Feb 17. Tickets are $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors. For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org. The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.