What do you get when you place two teenagers and the poetry of Walt Whitman in the hands of America’s most-produced playwright?
You get Lauren Gunderson’s play I and You, which opens April 5 on the Next Act Theatre stage. Director David Cecsarini calls the 2014 work “a theatrical miracle.”
“The characters’ journey is interesting as well as moving, but Lauren Gunderson has built in a shift in perspective that directs the final actions to a much deeper level of experience,” says Cecsarini, also Next Act’s artistic director. “It’s almost like a psychological thriller in that the ending is completely different from the audience was led to expect.”
“What I have learned about Gunderson’s writing is that she has an amazingly deft touch, able to bring up relevant subject matter while treating it with a light touch and a lot of heart,” Cecsarini says. “I like that about her.”
Teenagers and poetry
High school shut-in Caroline (American Players Theatre’s Cristina Panfilio) has a romantic heart, a smart mouth, and an unspecified liver disease that requires her to live in isolation.
Geeky high school jock Anthony (First Stage Children’s Theater intern Ibraheem Farmer) bursts into Caroline’s bedroom one day with waffle fries and a tattered copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in hand. He is intent on drawing her into an assigned English class poetry project.
Caroline is white, Anthony is black. The racial diversity is required — Gunderson’s way to deepen the drama and enrich the relationship that inevitably develops between the characters, Cecsarini says.
As expected, a relationship unfolds between Caroline and Anthony, who requested Caroline as his assignment partner because he had never seen her and wanted to know about her. Through Anthony’s interest, the audience begins to understand Caroline’s challenges and, in turn, the role Anthony will come to play in her life.
Whitman’s poetry cycle, written in 1855, conveniently speaks to the evolving intimacy between the two characters, especially in “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
The final line, in fact, proves particularly prescient to the play’s denouement.
“The adventure (of the play) is so wonderfully entertaining and buoyant,” Cecsarini says. “We get the voices, thoughts, opinions, concerns, pains and joys of young people so articulately expressed with both a youthful naiveté and wisdom.”
It’s Gunderson’s own love for the source material, particularly “Song of Myself,” that helps capture the play’s underlying theme, he adds.
“She has channeled Whitman’s thoughts into the play that we are all in this together,” Cecsarini says. “It’s a wonderful investigation through the minds and hearts of two teens that can speak to all of us in profound ways."
Lauren Gunderson's I and You runs April 5 – 29 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $22.50 to $38 and can be purchased by calling the ticket office at 414-278-0765 or online at .