When “I and You” opens Thursday night at the Blue Barn Theatre, the cast will be made up entirely of newcomers.
In this case, that’s only two people. The play, by Lauren Gunderson, is about high school students Caroline and Anthony, who get to know each other over the poetry of Walt Whitman when they’re thrown together for a last-minute assignment.
Anna Jordan, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is Caroline. It’s not her first major role: She was Curious George in a play with the same name at the Rose Theater. Jordan Smith, a 24-year-old who had a year as a music major at UNO, is Anthony. He’s had big roles, too: Last fall, he was Donkey in “Shrek the Musical” at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Both still are close enough to high school that the play resonated with them — the way it probably will with young audiences. Jordan graduated from Omaha Westside, Smith from Omaha Northwest.
“It has been amazing to discover (Caroline’s) journey,” Jordan said. “I find myself in her. She’s kind of who I was and who I wanted to be in high school.”
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Smith is having a similar experience, but it’s more intense.
“We are almost identical,” he said of himself and his character. “He plays saxophone, I play saxophone. He likes to write poetry and I like to write poetry. We make the same jokes all the time. This experience has been powerful because this role is the closest I’ve ever played to myself.”
In the show, Caroline hasn’t been to school in a while because she’s ill. Anthony, assigned as her study partner, delivers the assignment to her home: They’re supposed to track the meanings of the pronouns in “Song to Myself,” one of the poems in Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” collection.
“(Caroline) has built up a pretty strong wall between her and pretty much everyone else,” Jordan said. “When she finds how she can relate to Anthony, and hears the poem for the first time, she softens up.”
For his part, Anthony is kind-hearted and a little weird, Smith said.
Gunderson was the most-produced living American playwright in the 2017-18 season, according to a survey conducted by American Theatre magazine. That impressed Jordan.
“It’s amazing that it’s a female playwright,” she said of the survey results.
The Blue Barn produced Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” in 2017. Jordan saw it and knew she had to audition for “I and You.”
“When I read the script, I had chills,” she said.
Director Barry Carman asked Smith to audition for the part of Anthony, but Smith was skeptical. He’s used to performing comedy roles. But after he also read the script, he was sold.
“It’s really a story that needs to be told,” he said. “Everyone can take something away from it.”
Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement Toberer said Carman suggested the play three years ago, but the time wasn’t right. Now it is.
This season’s theme is “America in Pieces,” borrowing its title of the first show produced at the Blue Barn. Each show this season offers dramatically different visions of life, but they are bound by a common thread of empathy, authenticity and shared humanity, Toberer said when the season was announced. “I and You” was chosen with that in mind.
“It’s a good fit for our 30th anniversary year,” she said. “We are thrilled to produce it and to have two new people to grace our stage. It’s pretty exciting.”