Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

I and You
Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Review by Nancy Grossman

Reggie D. White and Kayla Ferguson
One of the challenges for the adult playgoer in the audience for I and You is to remember what it felt like to be a teenager, with all of the inherent insecurity, the sense of discovery, and the sometimes overwhelming existential angst of that stage of life called adolescence. Fortunately, playwright Lauren Gunderson not only has a great memory, but she also has the technical skills to craft a story of the first order that captures those feelings as clearly as if in a snapshot. Her powerful play achieves its potential with the authentic performances of its two young actors, Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White, both making their Merrimack Repertory Theatre debuts under the sure-handed direction of Artistic Director Sean Daniels.

Gunderson is the 2014 winner of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, granted to the best new play produced outside of New York City. I and You premiered in October, 2013, at Marin Theatre Company as part of the National New Play Network's rolling world premiere program, and the MRT production is its New England regional premiere which will move Off-Broadway to 59E59 Theatres in January, 2016, with the same actors, design and direction.

Set designer Michael Carnahan introduces us to Caroline's world with a fantastic depiction of a teenage girl's private space. The walls and ceiling of her attic bedroom are covered with photos, posters, notecards, and hanging lanterns; her floor is dotted with colorful area rugs; and her bed is laden with patterned pillows and comforters. With her Bluetooth speakers and iPhone, even in her solitary confinement, she can be entertained and connected to the outside world with the touch/swipe of a finger. She is quite accustomed to being alone (she communicates with her mother in another area of the house by text) and reacts with a mixture of surprise and fear when Anthony unexpectedly bursts into her room.

Faced with Caroline's brandished utensil and defensive stance, Anthony quickly explains who he is and why he is there. She is sickly, in desperate need of a liver transplant, and unable to attend school, but working hard to keep up with assignments. Their American Lit teacher suggested that Caroline could help Anthony, who is more interested in his basketball schedule, complete a project about the use of pronouns in Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" (from "Leaves of Grass") that just happens to be due tomorrow. She hates poetry and isn't exactly open to face-to-face contact ("I have a life ...I text a lot), but Anthony is on a mission and doesn't back down easily despite Caroline's heavy armor.

Much transpires in the course of an afternoon, accurately reflecting the intensity of adolescent experiences, and Anthony's warmth and lack of guile begin to melt Caroline's icy exterior. She has many reasons for being guarded and untrusting of the world, but no good reason for being alone, especially when Anthony stands before her willing to connect with her without judgment. Although he knows that he can't really understand how she feels, Anthony shares a story about witnessing the sudden death of a young basketball player that very day, teaching him a harsh lesson about the preciousness of life and living in the moment. That disclosure helps to forge a bond between the two as they realize they have more in common than at first glance. Both are smart and sensitive, looking at the world of their peers from the periphery while trying to pretend that it doesn't bother them. Yet, each sees in the other what they deny about themselves, and cling to each other when they discover their alikeness. Just when their happiness peaks, there is a stunning reveal and turn of events that I must not even hint at; know that it is a highly dramatic plot point and its manifestation is uber theatrical, thanks to Carnahan, lighting designer Brian J. Lilienthal and sound designer David Remedios. You will walk out of the theater unable to shake the impact of the last several minutes.

White, who was just named as a recipient of a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship in the Extraordinary Potential category, is endearing as the young man who doesn't seem to quite know what he is walking into. However, he shows patience and persistence, as well as a level of maturity that belies his character's chronological age. He conveys an old soul persona, and shows Anthony's passion when he riffs on his love for jazz and the poem at the heart of the play. Ferguson is totally credible as a teenager and inhabits the range of complex emotions that Caroline exhibits; whether her guard is up or down, when she is dancing to her music or felled by pain, and when everything that has defined her life may be changed in an instant, Ferguson makes it all feel real.

Daniels and Gunderson have been collaborating on tweaking the script, and his treatment of the playwright's language and pacing are informed by his involvement with the project. He skillfully blocks the actors so their awkward body language and physical distance from each other at the beginning of the play give way to relaxed posture and closer positioning as they ease into their relationship and come together in a most touching way. We can't help but like these characters and perhaps see our younger selves in them. Even though they are adolescents, they face some very adult challenges with tenacity and surprising grace. They learn the importance of just showing up and being present for someone. That lesson is one of the many gifts we receive from I and You.

I and You, performances through November 1, 2015, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or

Written by Lauren Gunderson, Directed by Sean Daniels; Scenic Designer, Michael Carnahan; Costume Designer, Jennifer Caprio; Lighting Designer, Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Designer, David Remedios; Stage Manager, Casey L. Hagwood

Cast: Kayla Ferguson, Reggie D. White

Photo: Meghan Moore

- Nancy Grossman

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