Oregon Contemporary Theater’s “I and You” will surprise you in all the right ways
Death, life and the joys of teenage confusion and angst – they’re themes we are all intimately familiar with and usually dread discussing, or worse, when they’re depicted in artsy, staged representations. However, the Oregon Contemporary Theater is featuring a play that manages, almost unbelievably, to present these ideas that are horrendously prone to clichés and after-school-special resolutions, in a work of original and dramatic near-genius.
I and You, written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Craig Willis, strays far from a feel-good, triumph-of-the-will formula. Only two actors are featured throughout the play. Actress Liv Burns plays Caroline, a teenage girl struggling with a life-threatening disease, and Anthony (Jonathan Thompson), a vulnerable high school athlete who is attempting to work through a project on the writings of Walt Whitman. All the drama takes place in Caroline’s room, to which she is confined because of her illness.
Initially, the storyline seems to be looming dangerously close to a cliché, a guarded girl and a friendly but somewhat sensitive guy, about to be stuck in a room together for the next 80 minutes. But Caroline isn’t guarded because she’s had her heart stomped on by some dirtbag guy. She’s borne the weight of living a life spent staring death in the face and feeling obligated to be flourishing with youth at the same time.
And Anthony isn’t Andrew from The Breakfast Club whose dad won’t accept him if he fails. He enters the stage blazing with enthusiasm for Whitman’s poetry, and his persistence in making Caroline open up to him isn’t the sort that makes you go “aww” but rather strikes a chord with that part of us that knows exactly what it feels like to be on either end of the exchange.
Tensions are high at almost every point in the play, go figure when you’ve got an introverted, irate girl suddenly getting her inner sanctum invaded by an outgoing basketball player and poetry enthusiast. At times it can be exhausting (or annoying) as Caroline and Anthony’s walls of communication go up and down and back up with a vengeance. Nevertheless, there is something highly sympathetic about their relationship as it develops.
The two go from constantly being on opposite sides of the room to sitting together sharing their hopes and fears on Caroline’s bed, all to the soundtrack of Walt Whitman’s poetry. As they discover more about each other and delve into the minutiae of Whitman’s use of pronouns (specifically, the evolution of his usage of “I” and “you”), the many dimensions of these characters are revealed to the audience as well. They are as messed-up, beautiful and nuanced as real people. And as life often goes, the play ends with a twist you can’t see coming, but makes a strange kind of sense.
Overall, I and You is a captivating work, and the OCT has produced a magnificent show under the direction of Craig Willis and with the talents of Burns and Thompson. The show will be running until Nov. 15 at the OCT Theatre at 194 W. Broadway. Student discounts are available for tickets. Learn more at the website.
Follow Kaylee Tornay on Twitter @ka_tornay
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