I and You is “powerful”, “gut-wrenching”, “beautiful”, on stage at the Tarragon in Toronto
Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, an Outlook Theatre production now playing at the Tarragon Extraspace, falls squarely into the teen “sick-lit” genre of books like The Fault In Our Stars, where chronically, seriously ill high schoolers are humanized and given a chance to speak, explore life and death, and even find love.
Gunderson was the most-produced playwright in America (save Shakespeare) by far this past year, and it’s clear why. Her play is witty and self-aware; it’s charming, well-constructed and features nuanced, likable characters that challenge our assumptions and stereotypes about both teenagers and the chronically ill. It feels very safe and comforting, with enough theatrical flourish to bely that safety and not seem generic.
Anthony (Jake Runeckles) drops by Caroline’s (Abby Weisbrot) room to work on a school project analyzing the pronouns in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The only problem is, she has no idea about the project or who he is; she’s currently a shut-in, with a failing liver that keeps her out of school and in her lovingly-rendered teen bedroom (designed by Emma Welsh). Unfortunately, the project is due tomorrow, and Anthony badly needs Caroline’s poster-making skills.
Caroline loves her cat, photography, and her stuffed turtle/planetarium that functions as a security blanket, but she doesn’t like to talk about what she loves. In fact, spiky, standoffish Caroline loudly resists the pervasive narrative that sick people are better, braver people than the rest of us (in the vein of author Mark Haddon’s line, “sunny stoical people can become seriously disabled, but becoming seriously disabled does not necessarily make you a sunny stoical person”). She also sees niceness as pity, and refuses it outright. It’s testament to Gunderson’s skill as a playwright and Weisbrot’s acting that she’s neither reduced to a prickly bitch or a poor saint; the former is a front for the fear and tentative hope we’re to discover later.
If we still don’t like her because of her flaws, the script asks, is there something in our ingrained assumptions about gender and illness that might cause that? Why would we be more inclined to sympathize with the boy who’s burst into a terminally ill girl’s sanctum with a last-minute project (“why do you assume you’re so likable?” she asks him) than the girl herself?
Anthony is a bit of a teenage dream; soulful, intense, and just on the adorable side of pretentious (he wears a “man-bun” and loves poetry, basketball, and jazz). He only has small, realistic flaws that attempt to balance out his “future Senator” vibe. The self-conscious script does call him out on this; it also sometimes indicates that Anthony was written as an African-American character (he was), but the Indian-Canadian Runeckles makes the part his own. (Gunderson has maintained that the characters’ races may be changed, as long as the characters are different races to emphasize Whitman’s theme of unity.)
The actors are adept at navigating the lightning-quick changes in mood that typify teenagehood, and have genuine, tentative chemistry while bonding over the beautiful poetry, (which is used in stirring ways that warm my English professor heart) and possible future plans. The language, too, turns on a dime, not afraid to be alternately “teen-speak” and lyrical. The characters are allowed to think critically, but are not forced to be overly mature.
Anthony enters quoting Whitman, “I and this mystery here we stand,” and there is a mystery here for sure, beyond literary analysis and the general mysteries of life and death. The ending is hopeful and gut-wrenching at the same time; it’s powerful and memorable. It’s also manipulative as hell, but that didn’t stop a tear from running down my cheek.
- I and You plays until April 29 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman Avenue)
- Performances run Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00 PM, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 PM, and a Wednesday 1:30 PM matinee.
- Tickets are $22-32 and can be purchased online, in person at the box office, or by calling (416) 531-1827.
- The play runs 95 minutes without intermission.
Photo of Abby Weisbrot and Jake Runeckles by Mark Kreder