"It's the physical, non-verbal, primal act of connecting."
The subtle lessons of Lauren Gunderson's I And You
A play never runs out of things to tell us --- we just have to keep listening. Just ask Lauren Gunderson.
Her play I And You premiered in California in 2013, and since then, it's been produced over 20 times. (The Off-Broadway premiere runs through February 28 at 59E59). By now, she obviously knows how the show works. She's heard the lines countless times. She can probably recite whole stretches from memory. Yet in the current staging, which transfers to New York after bowing last year at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts, the cast has reinforced several of the script's biggest themes.
A two-character show, I And You follows Caroline, a high schooler with a potentially fatal liver problem, and Anthony, a classmate who comes to her house for a study session on Walt Whitman. Since they hardly know each other, they're painfully awkward at first, but thanks to passionate debates about poetry, dance breaks to Jerry Lee Lewis tunes, and tentative admissions about their families and fears, the kids stumble toward a startling and intimate final moment.
Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White in 'I and You'
That conclusion, which involves both an embrace and a subversion of what we've been expecting, only works if we believe in the people on stage. To that end, Kayla Ferguson, who plays Caroline, has shown Gunderson something important. "She has this edge and spike to her that I think is really essential for Caroline to have," the playwright says. "At the beginning there was this worry that Caroline would be too – and I hate this phrase --- too 'unlikable.' Women get that word thrown at them all the time, and part of me said, 'Well, I don't actually care. The world isn't likable.' But at the same time, the whole course of the play is from her being gritty and angry and spiky to somebody who is vulnerable and softer and willing to listen and share. Kayla really helps inhabit that."
Gunderson also praises Reggie D. White for his take on Anthony's bouncing, teen-boy energy. "He knows how to be funny without pushing, and it's the kind of funny you can be with your friends," she says. "Certainly for a play that attempts a kind of naturalism as this one does, humor is not just entertainment. It's how we break the ice. So the feeling is not 'I have a joke to tell you!' but 'Let me be funny on my way to being open and honest.' That's a little more obvious when you have a person who can do that without pushing."
Granted, Gunderson suspected White's performance would be good. Years ago, she actually wrote this play for him. He just hasn't been able to perform in it until now. "He was the first person to read it in my living room, so now it feels like homecoming," she says.
Meanwhile, that last scene continues to impact Gunderson's writing. "For a play about words, I feel like the real climax of the play is not about words," she says. "It's about that final hug at the very end. It's the physical, non-verbal, completely primal act of connecting."
She continues, "That taught me something as a playwright. I'm certainly smitten with language and often rely upon it in a way that can be witty and moving and all that stuff, but you often forget that you have this incredible tool of the physical to often better articulate what your characters are going through. It's a reminder for me to go, 'Oh, right. I can just make someone show up and touch and connect, and that's actually all I need to write.'"
TDF Members: At press time, discounted seats are available for I And You. Browse all our discounts for Off-Broadway plays.
Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: Reggie D. White and Kayla Ferguson.