The title of I and You, now playing at Vermont Stage, refers to Walt Whitman's fluid use of pronouns to suggest humanity's universal interconnection. This two-character play is all about connection, but that can only come after one forms a self. And that's the main preoccupation of the two teenagers at the heart of this story. Lauren Gunderson's award-winning 2014 play sets them humorously wrestling with Whitman's poetry as part of a homework assignment that expands into an investigation of what they share.
The circumstances sound dreadfully maudlin. Whip-smart Caroline has been sick all her life and is now too ill to leave her bedroom to attend high school, though she keeps up with homework. Anthony, a poetry-loving basketball player, volunteers to do an English project with her; he shows up in her room to put together a presentation on Whitman. But Gunderson dodges sentimentality, sending her characters off to explore adolescent fascination with everything from Pop-Tarts to mortality.
Caroline is fatally ill but doesn't indulge in self-pity, and Anthony quotes Whitman as if she's bound to share his passion. They start out tussling. "Why do you assume you're so likable?" Caroline asks. "Why are you so impossible?" Anthony wails back.
Caroline's bedroom is littered with craft supplies, prescription pills and a magnificent wall of pictures she's cut out and tacked up in a bountiful, overlapping collage. She's still got one stuffed animal, and that fuzzy turtle with a hard shell is her in miniature.
The room suggests liveliness — Caroline's desk chair can scoot about on casters, and the floor is strewn with clothes, as if there's no time to waste. In a way, there isn't. Finding the courage to live is one of the play's themes, but it's handled with such a light touch and by such engaging characters that gloom never figures in.
This isn't a show that rolls the dying-girl apparatus onstage as if it's a guarantee of the audience's emotional investment. Gunderson plants the fact and moves on, because Caroline is far more interesting than her diagnosis, and Anthony is a fun and formidable sparring partner.
Eventually, the two start trusting each other. Anthony introduces Caroline to John Coltrane by playing music on his phone. He's asking her to open herself up to something new, to accept a little gift. He's asking her to accept him. And to accept life and all the new things that keep roaring into it, the decisions that define a teenager's identity.
Caroline counters his offering by putting on Jerry Lee Lewis, playing along to it with a furious turn on the air piano, complete with raised leg so she can run her toes on the imaginary ivories. The dialogue is snappy, and watching two verbally adept kids articulate their feelings is a joyride.
Yet that glib dialogue of Gunderson's occasionally upstages the actors. Some moments are so polished that we're watching the expression of an emotion more than the emotion itself. When the story grows more intense, however, the characters no longer hide behind funny, facile lines.
Anthony describes how his basketball game that day came to a halt when a player fell to the floor, dead instantly. When he replays the scene, his basketball moves take on an eloquent grace, slowed and shrunken to fit Caroline's bedroom. Both characters are shaken out of their verbal cleverness as they reflect on this moment when a boy's life abruptly ended.
As Caroline, South Burlington High School sophomore Victoria Fearn is a powerhouse. Caroline is good at keeping fear and anger hidden, but when she lets them out, Fearn makes the moment raw and powerful. This Caroline hurls herself inside a quilt and squirms in a futile attempt to crawl out from under the illness that's taken over her life. Fearn is equally compelling as the buoyant, pity-free Caroline, who dishes out sarcasm and isn't squandering a moment of her existence.
Jabari Matthew's performance as Anthony integrates physicality with a rich understanding of his character. Matthew, a junior at Middlebury College, moves with lanky grace and captures a teenager's self-consciousness in his shoulder shrugs and speech. Matthew creates an upbeat geek, willing to betray enthusiasms that many teens bury deeply. He sparkles as he teases Caroline, and it's easy to root for him when he urges her to share his interests.
Actors turn words they've memorized into reactions to another character. These fine young performers began Wednesday night's show charged with the energy they'd need to sustain 90 minutes without an intermission. With their engines revved so high, at first they roared past each other, responding without listening. But real interplay emerged as the show progressed. With each performance, Fearn and Matthew may grow increasingly confident in what they're creating together and resist letting Gunderson's propulsive banter whip by faster than the audience can absorb it.
Director Cathy Hurst demonstrates a flawless command of movement with her blocking, which constantly puts the two characters in just the right physical relationship to tell the story. Hurst seems to have created conditions that support the chemistry between the two actors, drawing them out so they can confront or comfort each other.
Scenic designer Jeffrey Modereger underscores Caroline's passion for life by making her bedroom a bright jumble of colors and textures. The picture wall is all multicolored exuberance, but its edges are as jagged as those of a cave wall, leaving a subtle hint of the prison her bedroom has become. Alan Hefferon's lighting design matches the energy of the play, with changes to suit the characters' rapid repartee.
Costume designer Suzanne Kneller puts Anthony in performance gear that nicely plays against his earnest affection for poetry. For Caroline, Kneller strikes another contrast, giving her comfy clothes that remind us she's free to dress as she pleases, just not free to leave her room.
The play has a surprise ending so startling that it nearly overpowers the story that precedes it. Gimmick or not, it's memorable, but only because the two characters have been developed so clearly in this polished production.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Wit and Whitman"