When I find authors I like, I want to inhale their works. I haunt Amazon.com, looking for everything they’ve written and hoping it’s on Kindle Unlimited.
That’s how I feel about playwright Lauren Gunderson. I want to see all of her plays, especially after the opening of “I and You” at the Blue Barn Theatre on Thursday night under the direction of Barry Carman.
Gunderson’s works are fresh, complex and lyrical — and still extremely accessible, whether when she’s writing about the science of astronomy (as she did in the brilliant “Silent Sky,” produced by the Blue Barn in 2017) or about interpreting the enigmatic words of poet Walt Whitman, which underlies the story she tells in “I and You.”
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What a story it is, complete with an ending that stunned everyone in the premiere-night audience. And what a group of actors, directors, designers and technicians the theater has chosen to tell it.
It starts slowly, at least in what it reveals. Anthony (Jordan Smith) shows up to study with Caroline (Anna Jordan) at her home. She wasn’t expecting him and had no idea that they had been paired to study “Song of Myself,” the opening poem in Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
Caroline, prickly and cynical, hasn’t been in school because she’s sick. She’s created a rich world for herself in her room, but is content (at least on the surface) that her only contact with peers is through texting.
She balks at the last-minute assignment, but the buoyant and garrulous Anthony forges on, using Whitman’s prose as bait. Caroline’s walls slowly come down and they get to know each other. She learns he admires Whitman and jazz great John Coltrane. He discovers she likes art, especially collages and photography, and loves listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”
It gets more intense as they get closer. She tells him her dad left and her mom hovers, and shares her feelings about living with a chronic genetic condition. He tells her about something that happened in school that day: A basketball player dropped dead on the court. She gives a passionate speech about Whitman’s poem for a school video, and they share a kiss.
Through it all, Smith and Jordan interact so organically that you’re right there in her room with them, remembering when you were getting to know your first boyfriend. Their performances indicate résumés a mile long, not those of relative beginners.
And through it all, Gunderson skillfully drops clues about the play’s wonderful, uplifting and redemptive conclusion, though you won’t realize that until you’re dissecting it on the ride home.
As usual, the Blue Barn’s production values are first-rate: Martin Scott Marchitto (set designer) and Craig Lee (scenic artist) created a spot-on environment for Caroline with a set you can look at for 90 minutes and still not see everything. It’s all enhanced by Joshua Mullady’s lighting design and Molly Welsh’s sound work (take note of the highly appropriate music.)
Once you know the whole story, you’ll want to talk about it — this play has layers and layers of meaning, enough that you might want see it twice. It was fascinating to watch expressions after curtain calls, and hear snippets of conversation as we left the theater.
Even though my friend and I discussed it all the way home, I’m dying to rehash it now. This one is a talker.