Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Anthony is a high school cool guy/nice guy, who desperately needs help with a homework assignment in which he is exploring via speech and poster the use of pronouns in Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Homebound while waiting for a new liver, Caroline has no interest in helping him, is pissed as hell that her mother let him in, and in fact is generally bitter about everything in her life. She screams at the intruder, "My body hates me. My house hates me. And you come in here with homework?".
But genial, smiling Anthony has lots of patience, and he also brought a bag of waffle fries. Those yummy-smelling fries, his apparent art deficiency as witnessed by the half-finished poster board he brings, and the few weird but intriguing lines he keeps reading to her of Whitman ("I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world") begin to soften her up. Finally, she succumbs with, "This is not me helping you ... This is triage," as she now eagerly grabs glitter, stickers, and construction paper from her craft drawer.
As the two dig into Whitman and his use of "I," "you," and "we," they argue, joke, gossip, and begin peeling off the onion skin of their souls to talk about themselves as the uncharted paths of Whitman's words lead them. Running across parts of the 500-page poem suggesting the poet's gay orientation, Caroline reacts to Anthony's "This is so cool" with "I don't care he's gay ... I care he's having sex all over my new poem."
With death an ongoing thread in Whitman's writing and with death something Caroline deals with each day, naturally that topic keeps coming up, with Anthony freaking out yet filled with curiosity that Caroline has to deal with this. "It's not this weird or awful thing. It's just something that happens everyday ... Just get over it," she says snidely. But, as it turns out, Anthony tells of a fellow basketball player who on this very day has died on the court during a game. With that revelation, the friendship takes a new, deeper turn; and Walt Whitman's words take on new meanings.
As Caroline and Anthony, real-life long-time friends and experienced young actors Ivette Deltoro and Davied Morales are stepping into their first lead roles on the stage. The sensitivity and maturity they both show in tackling these demanding roles predict many more starring roles to come for their still-nascent careers.
Ivette Deltoro's Caroline is at times like an obstinate 8-year-old, throwing temper tantrums that include stomping like a wild animal on the floor of her attic room, throwing dirty clothes and stuffed animals at the dodging Anthony, and rattling off rules like "Don't look at me," "Don't touch my turtle," and especially, "Don't be nice to me." Bit by bit, she allows first a smirk, then a bit of a toothy smile, and then an actual giggle to escape as her defensive wall begins to crumble when attacked by Anthony's charm. Her entire being bounces like a jumping bean once her creative juices begin to flow, and her face lights up as newfound ideas and insights from Whitman begin to sprout into her brain. Eventually, Caroline experiences an attack of sudden exhaustion while trying to get a reluctant Anthony to rock out with her, and Ms. Deltoro's emotional and expressive responses from that point to play's end underscore the fact that her role as an actor will likely not be a passing phase in her own life's journey.
Likewise, Davied Morales proves his acting mettle from the moment he pops into Caroline's room until Anthony's closing lines. With big, round eyes of wonder, he waxes and wows about Whitman, even when his audience of one is totally ignoring him. His passion for words and their more subtle meanings becomes sheer exuberance when he almost comes out of his own skin to declare, "In the end, it's like he's [Whitman] talking to me." Anthony coaxes the reluctant Caroline with boyish looks that could melt a mountain and a smile that dares one not to return it in kind. He brings the humor of the script to full life when he searches for self-faults to convince Caroline he is not so perfect. "I don't like babies," he says, trying to act callous, "They look like potatoes." But when Caroline finally admits her own fears of mortality, this Anthony also brings it all home, becoming a sheltering, safe harbor for her to dock herself and to release tears long pent up.
Much credit for the stellar performances of these two must go to Noëlle GM Gibbs and her deft, clever, and touching choices as a directoralong with plenty of decisions to allow humor to keep popping up in the ways the "kids" interact, use their bodies, and dance in relation to each other's presence. She has helped them portray powerfully that time in life when childish quirks still are just below the surface, when teenage awkwardness emerges much too often, and when signs of adulthood somehow know just when to peek through.
The empathy and understanding in Ms. Gunderson's script for anyone undergoing an ongoing, serious health issue are deep and genuine. Sitting next to my own husband who is in his eighth year of cancer and third straight year of chemotherapy, I got my share of pokes in the side as Carolyn talks about how she is so tired of everyone assuring her it is going to be OK, when others admonish her each time she starts talking about her own death, and how, at times, she feels ready to welcome Death's eyes.
With literally scores of contributions by properties designer Miranda Whipple, Ron Gasparinetti has created a teenager's room that any parent can certainly relate to, given the piles of scattered clothes, mismatched shoes, stuffed animals, candy wrappers, untouched school books, and a hundred other items taking up most of the floor, bed, and any other flat space in the room. Jane Lambert must have a teenager somewhere in her life because these two are certainly dressed accordingly. George Psarras offers sound effects that become increasingly important to the story and ensures both rock and jazz float out of the cell phones of our two music lovers at just the right time.
As wonderful as it is to watch the friendship develop between Carolyn, Anthony, and Walt (as in Whitman), what will always stay in the memory of any audience member is the surprise twist that Lauren Gunderson throws into the script at the end. Totally unexpected, the surprise adds new depth and message, and yet makes total sense looking back at everything that has happened up to that point. Director, actors, and set/light/sound designers all ensure that the effect is stunning. And, be prepared to grab a hanky because it will be needed.
Once again, City Lights Theater Company has chosen a winning script, a superb production team, and an exciting duet of actors to present to its audience a gift that will continue to give for a long time. Not only will I and You lead to both self-reflection and conversations about life, death, and relationships, my guess is it will lead to a rush on Amazon to order a copy of "Leaves of Grass."
I and You will continue through June 19, 2016, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at cltc.org.