“I and You,” the award-winning play by Lauren Gunderson at Compass Rose Theater, is a poignant, moving work that will take you to unexpected places. Directed by Jerry Winters, it is perfectly cast and fast-paced as the two actors in the production spar with each other, trying to find common ground and a human connection.
This is a beautifully directed, well-performed must-see for anyone who can stand to have their heart broken one more time.
“I and You” is the story of Caroline (beautifully played by Lilli Brown) who has been dying of liver disease since the day she was born. Now a senior in high school, she is so sick as she waits for a liver transplant that she can no longer leave the house. Her social contacts have diminished to those she can keep through texting. She is sick to death of being sick and dying. Caroline has developed a prickly, confrontational exterior that, at this point, few people stay long enough to get through it.
The play takes place entirely in Caroline’s bedroom (set designed by Omar Said and built by Stephanie Bates), a typical teenage space with blue-black walls covered with pictures of kittens, Elvis, a string of LED lights, and clothes strewn about. Her best friend is a plush, constellation turtle that takes her on her only journeys outside the house, into the cosmos.
The illness defines Caroline now, but there is obviously still a glimmer of a real girl inside. The play opens with Caroline dancing wildly in her bedroom to music. There is still life there, but she is no longer willing to make herself vulnerable by opening up to anyone, especially a boy. She’s not a ‘sick kid poster child.’ No pity, please.
Enter Anthony, also a high school senior (played wonderfully by Alie Karambash). He arrives unannounced at Caroline’s door with a plate of cookies from her mom and a bag of waffle fries, with the idea that, as partners, they can work on the English assignment due the next day.
Caroline is angry that he’s there, that he’s cute, that he won’t go away, and that, initially at least, he seems willing to put up with her guff. Kudos to Gunderson for having a good ear for teenage patois. She needs to get over her small dog rage. He needs to shut up or put it on YouTube. The fast-paced barbs and gibes flying back and forth between them, both angry and teasing, are a joy.
The two teens have never met, but they know this new relationship has to work to get them through the assignment. Anthony is the kind of guy that most of the women in the audience wish they had run into to help them navigate their high school journey. He is sweet, energetic, smart, and really into Walt Whitman, which is fortunately the subject of the homework assignment he has arrived to work on with Caroline.
The name of the play comes from the homework assignment. They are tasked with doing a project on the pronouns Whitman uses in “Song of Myself”—alternately used to refer to the author, his soul, and the reader. Whitman’s poem is intertwined with the emerging themes of the play which become clear as Anthony reads parts of the poem out loud. Anthony is Whitman, the lover of life, full of energy and hope. Caroline is the looming death that conquers all. Caroline is slowly won over to Team Whitman as they ponder the moving last line of the poem.
Indeed, it is only toward the end of the play that the audience realizes that something is amiss here. The beeping smoke alarm Anthony fixes is beeping again and the Coke Caroline texts her mother to deliver never arrives. The ending of the play is so surprising and heartbreaking that everything you think about the play until then goes right out the window. This is a beautifully directed, well-performed must-see for anyone who can stand to have their heart broken one more time.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 12+ due to adult language. Parental guidance suggested.
“I and You” runs through December 10, 2023 presented by Compass Rose Theater at Maryland Hall, 801 Chase Street, Annapolis, MD 21401. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 410-980-6662, or go online.