Next Act’s ‘I and You’ chan­nels Walt Whit­man to sur­pris­ing de­noue­ment

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

What do you get when you place two teenagers and the po­etry of Walt Whit­man in the hands of Amer­ica’s most-pro­duced play­wright?

You get Lau­ren Gun­der­son’s play I and You, which opens April 5 on the Next Act Theatre stage. Di­rec­tor David Cec­sarini calls the 2014 work “a theatri­cal mir­a­cle.”

“The char­ac­ters’ jour­ney is in­ter­est­ing as well as mov­ing, but Lau­ren Gun­der­son has built in a shift in per­spec­tive that di­rects the fi­nal ac­tions to a much deeper level of ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Cec­sarini, also Next Act’s artis­tic di­rec­tor. “It’s al­most like a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller in that the end­ing is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the au­di­ence was led to ex­pect.”

“What I have learned about Gun­der­son’s writ­ing is that she has an amaz­ingly deft touch, able to bring up rel­e­vant sub­ject mat­ter while treat­ing it with a light touch and a lot of heart,” Cec­sarini says. “I like that about her.”

TEENAGERS AND PO­ETRY

High school shut-in Caro­line (Amer­i­can Play­ers Theatre’s Cristina Pan­filio) has a ro­man­tic heart, a smart mouth, and an un­spec­i­fied liver dis­ease that re­quires her to live in iso­la­tion.

Geeky high school jock An­thony (First Stage Chil­dren’s The­ater in­tern Ibra­heem Farmer) bursts into Caro­line’s bed­room one day with waf­fle fries and a tat­tered copy of Walt Whit­man’s Leaves of Grass in hand. He is in­tent on draw­ing her into an as­signed English class po­etry project.

Caro­line is white, An­thony is black. The racial di­ver­sity is re­quired — Gun­der­son’s way to deepen the drama and en­rich the re­la­tion­ship that in­evitably de­vel­ops be­tween the char­ac­ters, Cec­sarini says.

As ex­pected, a re­la­tion­ship un­folds be­tween Caro­line and An­thony, who re­quested Caro­line as his as­sign­ment part­ner be­cause he had never seen her and wanted to know about her. Through An­thony’s in­ter­est, the au­di­ence be­gins to un­der­stand Caro­line’s chal­lenges and, in turn, the role An­thony will come to play in her life.

Whit­man’s po­etry cy­cle, writ­ten in 1855, con­ve­niently speaks to the evolv­ing in­ti­macy be­tween the two char­ac­ters, es­pe­cially in “Song of My­self”:

I cel­e­brate my­self, and sing my­self,

And what I as­sume you shall as­sume,

For ev­ery atom be­long­ing to me as good be­longs to you.

ON STAGE

Lau­ren Gun­der­son’s I and You runs April 5–29 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Wa­ter St., Mil­wau­kee. Tick­ets are $22.50 to $38 and can be pur­chased by call­ing the ticket of­fice at 414-278-0765 or on­line at box­of­fice@nex­tact.org.

The fi­nal line, in fact, proves par­tic­u­larly pre­scient to the play’s de­noue­ment.

“The adventure (of the play) is so won­der­fully en­ter­tain­ing and buoy­ant,” Cec­sarini says. “We get the voices, thoughts, opin­ions, con­cerns, pains and joys of young peo­ple so ar­tic­u­lately ex­pressed with both a youth­ful naiveté and wis­dom.”

It’s Gun­der­son’s own love for the source ma­te­rial, par­tic­u­larly “Song of My­self,” that helps cap­ture the play’s un­der­ly­ing theme, he adds.

“She has chan­neled Whit­man’s thoughts into the play that we are all in this to­gether,” Cec­sarini says. “It’s a won­der­ful in­ves­ti­ga­tion through the minds and hearts of two teens that can speak to all of us in pro­found ways.”

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