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There are more facets to Burning Coal Theatre Company’s current production of I and You than can be touched on here. While this seemingly straightforward and compact play envelopes many different aspects, the crux of it is the exchange between Caroline, a high school senior with a debilitating disease, and Anthony, a fellow student who comes over to complete an English class homework assignment. But that description barely scratches the surface. Playwright Lauren Gunderson weaves such a staggering amount of information into this 90 minute work that we are still attempting to assimilate it all long after the lights come up and we head back into the world at large.
Director Lucy Jane Atkinson takes two Raleigh teens and hands them a pretty hefty assignment: create two people you probably have no concept of, recreate their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, cares, and misgivings; then try and make them interact in such a way as to leave the audience dumbfounded. The premise of Gunderson’s play is the interaction between two teens who have never met, have no idea of the other’s situation, yet manage to come together in such a way as to leave us all pretty much amazed, and entirely uplifted. And while all this is happening, we also get a dissection of a Walt Whitman poem, a hefty dose of Coltrane, a recap of the day’s basketball game, and a look at how one child copes with a possibly life-threatening disease.
Caroline is played by Laura Lillian Baggett, who last year appeared for Burning Coal in A Hundred Words for Snow, in which each of (only 4!) audience members experienced the play while wearing a blindfold! She is a high school senior, but she already has an impressive list of credits from several Raleigh theatre companies, including Burning Coal and Raleigh Little Theatre. Playing opposite her as Anthony is Jireh Ijeoma, who is also a local actor with impressive credits, including Theatre Raleigh, Raleigh Little Theatre, and The Justice Theatre Project.
Caroline is, by necessity, house-bound. She has suffered since birth with a failing liver, and now that she has reached her teens, the disease is causing her often-intense pain. She is under doctor’s orders to rest as much as possible; going to school is out of the question. Nevertheless, Caroline is determined to graduate, and she has arranged with her teachers to work from home. Her only link to the outside world is her phone, and her enforced seclusion has her climbing the walls. Caroline is a better-than-average artist, whose works decorate the walls of her room. She is hard at work on one when she is scared, near witless, by the arrival of Anthony, who comes bearing cookies from her mom downstairs and a workboard of an assignment for their Senior English class. Since Caroline never receives visitors, her reaction is volatile.
Anthony must first calm Caroline down, because she doesn’t know him, did not expect him, and has no idea what he is talking about. But he eventually gets her to understand that he is there for their joint assignment: analyze a poem by Walt Whitman, taken from his landmark Leaves of Grass. It is clear to Caroline that Anthony is out of his depth; while his understanding of the poem is clear, his design of the workboard needs life support, and he has waited until the very last minute to approach her. The assignment is due tomorrow.
We meet two completely different people: Caroline is consumed with her illness; it defines her existence. She has lived her whole life with this condition, and if she does not get a transplant soon, she could die. Anthony, by comparison, seems charmed. He is popular, an accomplished athlete, a musician, has a relatively normal family life, and, in short, seems to be diametrically opposed to Caroline. But the two begin work on this Whitman poem, written during the Civil War, which examines the I (Whitman himself, the narrator, the speaker) and the You (the reader, the listener, the Other). The poem also examines life and death and Whitman’s belief that one is merely a continuation of the other. But the two converse on other subjects, as well. Anthony tells her about John Coltrane, and plays some for her on his phone. She tells him about her hopes for after graduation: her desire to go to NYC, to be a photographer, and to travel the world. She concludes this story with the caveat that, in all likelihood, none of this will ever come to pass. Anthony tells her about his day, including his basketball game and how it was stopped suddenly, near the end of the third quarter. One player dropped dead on the court; no one could stop it or aid him. Caroline is shocked and asks if he is not deeply affected by this calamity.
These are only a few of the aspects touched upon by Gunderson’s seemingly innocent play. But it is a microcosm on the teenage, budding, and expanding mind, the thoughts and hopes of each, and how these two seemingly disparate people can come together in so short a time. Gunderson, too, adds a surprising, stunning twist at the end of this play that is sure to knock your socks off. This play is a real treat, one that Burning Coal Artistic Director Jerome Davis says he is proud to have open the new 25th anniversary season. You will very probably come out with a different view of the contemporary teen from this portrait, which Davis describes as real, in touch, and truly inspiring.
This one will stay with you.
Bring your mask, bring a friend, and if you have one, bring your teen. They will all thank you for it.
I and You continues through October 24. For more information on this production, please see the sidebar.