'I and You' at People's Light: Surprising, visceral, devastating

Claire Inie-Richards and Ricardy Charles Fabre in the People's Light production of "I and You."

Caroline is a teenage girl: white, pretty, feisty, perhaps a bit frail. We sense from her room -- with its collaged decorations -- that she has an artistic bent. But she is prickly, a personality with lots of sharp edges. 

They’re on display when Anthony, an African American classmate she doesn’t know, bursts in, quoting from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass. “I and this mystery,” he announces. “Here we stand.” 

Caroline, it seems, is seriously ill and trying to keep up with schoolwork from home. Anthony has volunteered to collaborate with her on a homework project: a presentation on Whitman’s poetry.

That is the setup for playwright Lauren Gunderson’s somewhat awkwardly titled two-hander, I and You, at People’s Light. The 85-minute intermissionless show, directed by Samantha Reading, cleverly knits together snippets of Whitman’s verse, snapshots of contemporary teenage mores and angst, and philosophical musings about life, death, and relationships.

This production’s pacing could be quicker. And Gunderson’s observations about the teenage obsession with texting and social media have become commonplace. (“I have a life,” Caroline insists. “I text a lot.”) Nevertheless, in the end, I and You packs a surprising, visceral punch.

Claire Inie-Richards’ Caroline is startled, dismissive, and rejecting of Anthony -- at first. Isolated and afraid, she’s not much for poetry or strangers or anyone who tries to penetrate her protective facade. It doesn’t help that her parents are separated, her mother apparently cries at the drop of a hat, and Caroline's prospects for a normal life are slim. Inie-Richards’ focused performance makes Caroline sympathetic even at her most adolescent and ornery.  

As Anthony, a scholar-athlete with a professor father, Ricardy Charles Fabre is a solid, patient presence. He enunciates slowly and clearly, with a sheen of artifice that may be intentional. 

Over time, as we might expect, Caroline warms to both Anthony and Whitman, opening her heart and revealing her dreams of an artistic future in New York. (The play is described as taking place “Now” and “In your city.”)

Anthony loves jazz, especially John Coltrane; Caroline is a different sort of old-school in her musical tastes, a fan of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Race is an issue only at the margins. Both characters end up Whitman-besotted, attuned to his eroticism, and to each other. “Missing me one place search another,” Whitman wrote, and they do. 

The colorful bedroom set, designed by Dylan Jamison and Will Scribner, telegraphs how vividly Caroline experiences life. An unfinished jigsaw puzzle on the floor suggests, like Anthony’s entrance lines, the possibility of a mystery. Maria Shaplin’s lighting is beautiful and evocative.  

The final twist in I and You is sudden, devastating, unforeseen. It transforms our understanding of the play, illuminating with radiant clarity the poetry, the two teenagers, and the links between them.  

I and You. Through April 23 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $28-$48 Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.