“How do you hate poetry?” an earnest and disbelieving high-schooler named Anthony asks a prickly, bedridden girl in “I and You,” a crafty two-character drama by Lauren Gunderson.
The reply from teenage Caroline, whose bedroom the upbeat Anthony has invaded with a group project on Walt Whitman that they have to finish now (he insists), drops its target dead.
“With. Verve,” she says, pausing deliciously between the words.
Verve is right. “I and You” is a sharp and funny 80-minute drama, even though the setup looks like two sappy strikes against Gunderson. Strike one: It cozies up to poetry. (You’ve just been waiting for a drama that takes its cues from Whitman, right?) Two: It deals with a girl needing an organ transplant. The super-tiny bedroom set that the Olney Theatre Center production crowds the audience up to in the small Mulitz-Gudelsky lab may be Caroline’s deathbed.
Everything’s primed for pathos, yet Gunderson taps into a buoyant spirit. It starts with language: The two kids are great talkers, slangy and real. They are also wary strangers; Anthony has come looking for Caroline because she’s too ill for school, although she tries to keep up with assignments. He’s black and she’s white, though Gunderson doesn’t make much of that. He’s a little high-strung but plainly harmless, and a little geeky. “You’re such a senator,” she chides as his sunny good nature grows ever more obvious.
Caroline has a hard defensive shell (naturally, her favorite stuffed pet is a turtle), but that defensiveness manifests as aggression that keeps Anthony on his heels. This gives Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, open and appealing as Anthony, some of his most amusing moments. Rachael Tice, for her part, is first-rate with Caroline’s dry sarcasm.
So what’s it all about? Homework. Coming to terms with mortality is a looming theme. There are lessons from the old poet, and the passages that the kids isolate are worth listening to closely. The only rub with director Eleanor Holdridge’s taut, composed production is that Fitzpatrick and Tice occasionally blow through the bright banter and venerable verses faster than the audience can take it all in.
There is a major twist to the plot (no spoilers here) that cynics may hate but that Gunderson earns by taking Whitman’s cosmic exuberance seriously. She also earns it by taking Caroline’s advice and avoiding sentimental mush, something Holdridge and her designers almost keep faith with until they flip one late romantic switch that might have been better left off. But even that doesn’t dim the touching “barbaric yawp” (Whitman’s phrase) of these two deeply engaging kids.
By Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Scenic design, Dan Conway; lights, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound design, Matthew M. Nielson. About 80 minutes. Through March 23 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. $32.50-$65. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.