When Lauren Gunderson was thinking about building her play “I and You,” she was focused on size.
“I struggled with the idea of how to take a small story and give it the weight of an epic,” the playwright says of her drama, running at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through Nov. 1. “How do you allow seemingly off-handed moments to expose the gravity of individuals’ lives?”
All the action of “I and You” takes place in the bedroom of a teenager named Caroline. Too ill to go to school, struggling with a failing liver and connected to the world only via her smartphone and computer, Caroline sees her tightly defined world rocked when another high school student named Anthony barges into her bedroom to work with her on a presentation for their American Literature class.
The topic for the team project is the use of pronouns in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” hence Gunderson’s title. And the choice of Whitman helped the playwright turn a simple story of teen angst into something much more complicated.
“I picked Walt Whitman’s poem because I read it in high school, and I love his poetry in a pedestrian way,” says Gunderson, speaking by phone from her home in Atlanta. “He’s so raw and wild and a bit of a ne’er do well, but he’s also incredibly idealistic and hopeful about the world despite having witnessed so much death in the Civil War.”
Whitman, Gunderson says, doesn’t shy away from big ideas about peace, war, death, and the environment, while maintaining an incredible sense of wonder. That gives “Song of Myself” a remarkably contemporary feel, and the more she thought about the poem and the play together, she says, “The more it began to fit like a zipper.”
MRT artistic director Sean Daniels, who is directing this production, says the beauty of Gunderson’s writing is her ability to capture these characters’ awkward open hearts. Although at first Caroline and Anthony have nothing in common besides the homework assignment, they forge a reluctant connection through Whitman’s poetry. As the play builds to a stunning climax, the two banter about topics of life and loss with increasing ease, and with Gunderson’s delightfully fresh sense of humor
“The emotional turns we make as we get older are wider and slower,” says Daniels. “When you are in your teens, everything is life and death. The idea of connecting to someone is intense, and so you cling to people in a way you don’t when you have had a little more life experience.”
Gunderson’s choice of characters is disarming, says Daniels. “She has brought together two teenagers who live very different lives, but find that they have things in common,” he says. “That tentative effort to look past difference is something we don’t see enough of.”
The playwright also deploys a fast-moving teen slang. “The rhythm and pacing are so important to me,” says Gunderson. “Teenagers don’t just talk fast; they speak with enormous conviction.”
Although “I and You” won the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award in 2014, and was published last year, Gunderson says she and Daniels are continuing to tweak the script, since the Merrimack Repertory Theatre production will transfer Off-Broadway to the 59E59 Theaters in January.
“It’s really helpful working with Sean on this production,” says Gunderson, who says she’s known Daniels for more than a decade and worked with him on several projects. “Sean brings a delicate touch.”
“I was doing theater in Atlanta when Lauren was in high school,” says Daniels, “So I’m very proud to have been her champion and cheerleader from the beginning of her career.”
I and You
At Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, through Nov. 1. Tickets: $25-$65. 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org