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BWW Review: I AND YOU at Syracuse Stage

In less competent hands, this material could become fodder for the Lifeline channel, but the prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson knows better than that.

BWW Review: I AND YOU at Syracuse Stage
L-R Phoebe Holden and Cole Taylor in Syracuse Stage's streaming production of I and You.
Photo by Brenna Merritt.

There is an astonishing turn of events toward the end of I and You, but let's not talk about that. Let's talk about Walt Whitman instead.

Whitman was a revolutionary who overthrew poetry. He trashed the self-conscious, hyperstylized European tropes which had dominated the art and substituted something purely American: a rough, colloquial, muscular free verse which tumbles over itself like the streams and brooks of his Long Island home.

To Whitman, everything in the human experience is a glorious feast of the senses, which proceeds from the moment of birth at the speed of life. Indeed, to him the life force irresistibly moves forward, and can not be tamed by science, or politics, or religion, or anything.

Even death.

This is important information for Caroline (Phoebe Holden), a teenager with a bad liver. She is isolated in her bedroom, waiting with a fierce desperation for a transplant - standing in a line a thousand times longer than any line for Syracuse basketball tickets, ever. Her liver has been compromised from birth, due to a genetic defect, and so she lives her life with a foot in two worlds. In one world, she dreams of college in the Big Apple, going to parties on the rooftop of skyscrapers, being an art photographer and playing rockabilly piano with Jerry Lee Lewis. In the other, she lives in her bedroom, confined there by an implacable illness, frantically keeping up with classwork online so she can graduate with her class but condemned to a likely early death. Her closest companion is a stuffed turtle which doubles as a planetarium, allowing her to see the stars that she cannot otherwise see.

With the promise of a healthy life lying tantalizingly just beyond her grasp, Caroline is angry and morose, as anyone might be. She is chary of any attempt to befriend her, mistaking it for pity and knowing that any relationship she has will be short-lived, since she will be short-lived. Even her cat is named "Bitter".

Thus when Anthony (Cole Taylor) enters her room, bearing a half-completed Walt Whitman poster for a school project (to track the pronouns in Leaves of Grass) due tomorrow and begging for her assistance he is greeted with a tsunami of rage. How dare he interrupt her isolation with this stupid project - about some old dead poet!

She struggles to reject Anthony, to push him out of her room and out of her life. Luckily for her, she is unsuccessful. Anthony is a useful fellow. He brings cookies and waffle fries, and puts her smoke alarm, in the beeping throes of low-battery death, out of its misery. This earnest, Coltrane-loving, basketball-playing young man does something even more important: he brings her Whitman, with all his shaggy and irresistible power.

Anthony is in love with Whitman because Whitman is in love with life, and so is Anthony. Anthony is more than a Whitman enthusiast; he preaches the gospel of Whitman to Caroline. Whitman, like Christ and the Buddha, considers death a hoax. Anthony, quoting Whitman, says this: "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses/And to die is different from what any one supposes, and luckier." And this: "I know I am deathless." And this: "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles."

The two young people fumble and stab at making a connection. It does not proceed linearly. Rejecting Anthony and pushing him out of the room is never far from Carolyn's mind, and Anthony is awash in frustration. ("Why are you impossible?" he asks, and she responds "It makes a shitty life a lot more fun.") But the arc of the characters, and the play, bends toward understanding, respect ("you're such a Senator!" Caroline tells Anthony as she apprehends the breadth of his accomplishments and the extent of his diligence), affection, and perhaps something more (Caroline kisses Anthony impulsively, and then, embarrassed, says "I fell on your face".)

It is not an easy task to convincingly make a transition from violent rejection to easy acceptance during the 100 or so minutes of the play, but Holden manages the job. She immediately impresses us with Caroline's volatility, and in the first five minutes of the play we understand that this is a character who might end up anywhere. But her progression from open hostility to wary curiosity to acceptance to something approaching love is natural and authentic, as are the occasional instances of backsliding.

Less convincing is a moment in which she exhibits the symptoms of her catastrophic medical condition, although in fairness to Holden the text doesn't give much time to display the condition. Nor does it give this symptom attack any broader context or reason for being in the narrative.

Taylor does fine work as Anthony, making him a real mensch without an ounce of dash or swagger. In his hands, Anthony is a modest man animated by his passions, which allow him to do things he would not normally do. Whether he is talking about Whitman, or reading him, or playing Coltrane on his cell phone, he is a missionary of the heart, giving himself up to service to Caroline. "I and this mystery: here we stand," he says, quoting Whitman, as he enters Caroline's room, but Anthony has solved the mystery, and he wants to show the solution to Caroline. Taylor gets it, and because of his performance, so do we.

In less competent hands, this material could become fodder for the Lifeline channel, but the prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson knows better than that. I and You, a Steinberg Awards winner and probably her best work, is leavened with knowing wit, and Gunderson's appealing characters have not forgotten the joy of being young, notwithstanding the savage circumstances of their lives. In Gunderson's hands, I and You is not simply a play about super-articulate kids dealing with a horrible illness; it is a validation of the human experience, and of the triumph of life over death.

Syracuse Stage, and director Melissa Crespo, do the work full justice. Since we continue to live in plague times, the production is available only virtually, through May 23 using this link. This has some advantages, particularly at the play's powerful conclusion.

Before he leaves, Anthony gives Caroline an additional gift; it is small but, I think, it will suffice. So, too, for us. Gunderson's gift is the best thing a play can offer: we might be better people after seeing it. That, too, suffices.

Running Time: 103 minutes.

I and You, by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Melissa Crespo. Featuring Phoebe Holden and Cole Taylor. Scenic design: Shoko Kambara. Costume design: Lux Haac. Lighting design: Dawn Chiang. Sound design and original music: Elisheba Ittoop. Intimacy coordinator: Teniece Divya Johnson. Dramaturg: Anisa Rose Threlkeld. Stage manager: Laura Jay Collins, assisted by Stuart Plymesser. Filmed by Black Cub Productions. Produced by Syracuse Stage.

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