“Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”– Walt Whitman
A few years ago, there seemed to be a resurgence of coming-of-age feature films about sick and dying teenagers finding love. A Love Story for the millennials if you will. None of those movies, however, delivered the same kind of gut-punch Burning Coal Theatre’s production of I and You does.
The play centers on Caroline, a teenager living with a debilitating disease, who is confined to her room. Her only connection to the outside world is her phone and computer until one of her classmates, Anthony, shows up with an English assignment that is due the next day. As the unlikely pair begin to decode the mysteries of life encrypted in Walt Whitman’s poetry, they find common ground.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson forewarned me about this play several years ago when I interviewed her. She classified it as having one of those ‘transcendental holy crap moments’ of theater, which she relishes.
“Those are why I watch theater, why I love it, why I love writing it,” she said. “Those are the moments that I’m most excited by and proud of in my work.”
But as with most plays, the success of these “gotcha” moments Gunderson describes is contingent on how they are delivered. It is up to a collaborative director, like visiting artist Lucy Jane Atkinson, to pace the piece, deflect by design, and work with the actors to ensure nothing is telegraphed too soon.
Atkinson clearly understood that assignment.
She has cast two age-appropriate actors, Laura Lillian Baggett and Jireh Ijeoma, to portray Caroline and Anthony respectively. She then enlisted the work of Intimacy Director Jeff A. R. Jones to create a bond of trust between them, the process of which is discussed in Burning Coal’s short video documentary Ephemeral: Envisioning I and You. Consequently, the chemistry between the two actors is palpable and their performances are imbued with an unflinching, realness that is credible.
There are technical elements necessary to make this work as well. Sudden set, lighting, and sound changes need to be in sync. Fortunately, a capable design team and ready crew are up to the task, mobilized by Erin Morales’ detailed scenic design work. Morales, who also designed the set for Theatre in the Park’s production of The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, is quickly distinguishing herself as one of the area’s most innovative designers.
Collectively, Burning Coal Theatre’s production of I and You hits the mark. It is surprising, timely, and insightful, without being preachy or condescending. It speaks to the power of how art brings us together and serves as a simple reminder that connecting with one another is ageless and key to our survival.
The Burning Coal Theatre production of I and You runs through October 24. For more information visit https://burningcoal.org/. For a complete listing of Triangle theater events, visit our event calendar.
Check out Juan Isler’s Beltline to Broadway interview with the creatives behind I and You.