'I & You' transcends its seeming simplicity

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By Doug Deuchler

Artbeat

There is an intense, rather sensational joint production produced by Oak Park Festival Theatre and Open Door Theater currently playing at the latter's home base in Oak Park. I & You, by Laura Gunderson, initially seems a deceptively simple story about two adolescents, Caroline (Erica Bittner), a white girl who is a shut-in with a fatal liver disease, and Anthony (Matty Robinson), an upbeat and level-headed African-American basketball player from her class at school.

The strong actors, tightly directed by Bryan Wakefield, bring the story to life with clever performances and credibility.

One might initially think this play is a rehash of some after-school TV drama from the teens-with-a-scary-disease genre, but Gunderson's dialogue is realistic and sharp. I was surprised to learn that the playwright is the top, most-produced living dramatist in America. A one-set, two-person show makes this work particularly attractive in terms of budget, but the script requires talented performers to bring the material to life and not seem hokey or contrived. This is a solid production.

Caroline, who seems an abrasive smart-ass, is actually a lonely, frightened teen who hasn't been to school in months and whose only social contact is via Facebook. She keeps up with her lessons at home and is waiting for a liver transplant donor.

Classmate Anthony barges in, sent up to Caroline's cluttered bedroom by her mom. He announces he's been assigned to partner with Caroline on their American Lit project — an in-depth look at the use of pronouns in Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass (hence the title of this drama).

"I expect to get an A on this project," he announces to Caroline. She initially resists. She insists she hates poetry. They need an artistic poster display as well as their presentation on the 19th century poet. But before long, they are both deeply involved in the assignment — which is due tomorrow.

They are very different teenagers in many ways. Given her situation, we can understand why Caroline is so often abrasive and bad-tempered, but we are also struck by Anthony's patience and perseverance. He's so well-adjusted and positive. Anthony carries with him a backpack containing waffle fries, Pop Tarts and recordings of jazz giant John Coltrane. Caroline is attached to a stuffed turtle and has covered an entire wall of her room with hundreds of cut-out photos, postcards and other illustrated items. Their hesitant sharing and their budding friendship are touching to witness.

Milo Bue's set design is striking, with its back wall entirely covered by photos and other images. This setting forms a backdrop collage that defines the girl's shut-in existence. Mike McShane provides dramatic lighting, which heightens several key points in the story. The production runs about 90 minutes with no intermission.

I & You is noteworthy for its fine performances and its swift-moving, witty dialogue. There is a dramatic twist, but I won't provide any spoilers for that.

Perhaps you may remember some feature films a decade or so ago that critics dubbed "the magic Negro movies" in which beleaguered white folks were rescued from dire circumstances by selfless, generous African-American characters. I recall The Family Man with Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle. This crossed my mind with I & You. But it doesn't take anything away from this fine play.

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