By PAM HARBAUGH
The written word, the meaning of life and teenage angst blend into mystical harmony in Mad Cow Theatre’s compelling production of Lauren Gunderson’s award winning drama, “I and You.”
The story revolves around Anthony, a tall, strong, positive minded teenager, and chronically ill Caroline, a stubborn, quick witted and artistic high school senior.
The setting is Caroline’s colorful bedroom, which has become her whole world as she awaits a liver transplant. She claims she has prepared herself for death, but all about her are attributes of someone who loves life and yearns to understand the secrets it holds. A string of Christmas lights line one wall of her bedroom, one another wall are pictures of her idol — vintage Elvis. A telescope stands in the corner. We see a poster of a starry constellation and photos of the moon. Festooning another wall are her own art and the words “Just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean you’re alive.”
Indeed, as shown in Rebecca Pancoast’s cagey scenic design, this is the room of someone who wants desperately to live.
The story begins with Anthony urging Caroline to wake up and get out of bed because they’ve got to finish a school project on Walt Whitman. Caroline does her best to get him to leave, but he doesn’t budge.
“I and this mystery here we stand,” he says, quoting from Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.”
Quoted throughout the play, the line becomes a refrain nudging you to look deeper. There are other hints — the telescope inviting you to explore, the origami mobile suggesting something will unfold, the odd beeping of a fire detector. But to say more would ruin one of contemporary American theater’s most precious of reveals, and one that will pull you inside out, leaving you limp from emotion.
While Ms. Gunderson wrote her play with thoughts of it being produced in a theater with all the technical trappings, the Mad Cow Theatre production uses an intimate black box theater. Director Aradhana Tiwari weaves elegant magic by concentrating on the literary component of the play and the talents of lighting designer Larry Rodriguez and sound designer Kurt Wagner. As she has done in “The Light in the Piazza” and “33 Variations,” she folds us into the story and out again through gentle pacing, giving us time to absorb the action and deepening dialogue.
It is clear that actors Mike Mitchell, Jr. and Karleigh Chase love their characters. And they make the audience love them as well. They bring out the texting, OMG, quick banter and short attention span you might expect of today’s adolescents. But they also imbue their characters with emotion and wisdom far exceeding their age.
We delight in Anthony’s love of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and become giddy at the air piano they play in Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” — Caroline’s own take on Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” which the poet says should be done in the face of one’s mortality. Suddenly, we are smacked with the realization that there remain imminent issues of life and death.
While at first blush, one might consider that it is Caroline who needs Anthony, we discover that Anthony needs Caroline just as much. They are on a spiritual journey together with Walt Whitman as the mad conductor leading them on through joy and the deep cosmic realization that we are all one.
“I and this mystery here we stand.”
This satisfies on so many levels. Do make a point of traveling to Orlando to see this gentle but soul stirring production.
Photo by Tom Hurst.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “I and You” runs through Dec. 14 at Mad Cow Theatre, 54 West Church St., second floor, Orlando. Tickets start at $36.75. The “Pay What You Wish” performance 8 p.m. December 3. (They sell out quickly, you can reserve a $17 seat in advance). Call 407-297-8788 or visit MadCowTheatre.com.