Theater & dance

Stage Review

Warmth, wit, and Whitman in Merrimack Rep’s ‘I and You’

Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White in “I and You.”
Meghan Moore
Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White in “I and You.”

LOWELL — Lauren Gunderson is certainly not the only playwright with a gift for capturing the haphazard yet purposeful way teenagers talk and make connections with one another.

We’re blessed with an abundance of such writers at the moment, including, just to name two, Ruby Rae Spiegel, whose “Dry Land’’ is at Company One Theatre, and Suzanne Heathcote, whose “I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn’t Even Smile’’ was at Berkshire Theatre Group over the summer.

Even in that kind of company, Gunderson stands out. Her plays come spring-loaded with the element of surprise, and for all her proficiency at crafting dialogue that is pungently convincing, she has proven no hostage to naturalism in earlier works like “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight’’ and “Exit, Pursued by a Bear.’’

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The playwright’s taste for magical realism and her zest for head-snapping plot twists are very much present in “I and You,’’ now receiving its New England premiere in a Merrimack Repertory Theatre production that will transfer to off-Broadway in January.

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Funny and moving by turns, “I and You’’ is suffused with a warmth that does not cloy, an intimacy that does not stifle, and a wit that connects it all together. The two-character, one-act play climaxes with a coup de theatre that, while startling enough to draw gasps from the Merrimack Rep audience, does not come across as gimmicky, but rather feels of a piece with what came before.

Your initial reaction to the play’s setup may be a wary “uh-oh.’’ A high school student named Caroline, suffering from a life-threatening medical condition, is visited in her home by Anthony, a kind-hearted classmate intent on reviving her spirits via the humanity-embracing poetry of Walt Whitman? Sounds like the stuff of one of those old “ABC Afterschool Specials.”

But not in Gunderson’s deft hands, or in those of Sean Daniels, the new artistic director at Merrimack Rep. At the helm of “I and You,” Daniels demonstrates a keen grasp of the play’s strengths as well as its potential pitfalls. He brings out the play’s poignancy without drifting into the soggy swamp of sentimentality, and manages to convey complexity without sacrificing clarity.

It helps that Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White give excellent performances as Caroline and Anthony. Ferguson endows Caroline with such compellingly spiky individuality, while White gives Anthony a largeness of gesture to match the character’s appealing largeness of spirit.

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Anthony is black, Caroline is white; he is effusive and energetic and studious, she is guarded and suspicious and prefers to hide her smarts behind that time-honored adolescent defense mechanism, sarcasm. Caroline mocks Anthony’s good-son dutifulness (“You’re such a senator’’) and he sometimes grows exasperated with her (“Why are you so impossible?’’). A friendship between the two characters seems inevitable, of course.

Caroline and Anthony have been teamed up for an American lit project on Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass’’ that is due the next day. Both the partnership and the deadline come as unwelcome news to Caroline, who has been cooped up in her bedroom for a long time, a smartphone her primary connection to the outside world as she battles a liver disease.

Caroline is nobody’s fool, a quality Ferguson conveys by playing her with the wised-up wiseacre affect of a young Janeane Garofalo. “Don’t be nice to me,’’ Caroline snaps at Anthony, adding: “When everyone is so nice, nice is fake.’’

Anthony tries a variety of stratagems to break through that wall of emotional defensiveness, including introducing Caroline to the music of John Coltrane. Her own defiantly retro tastes are suggested by the photo collage on her walls, which prominently features the Beatles and Elvis Presley on a set designed by Michael Carnahan. In one touching scene, the teenagers fantasize about life in New York. (In a possible nod to “Our Town,’’ the setting is identified in the playbill only as “Your town, this afternoon’’).

Their conversation sometimes revolves around Whitman and the insights of that mystic poet-seer on the subjects of death and dying. Caroline is understandably resistant at first to those topics, and seemingly unfamiliar with the poet’s work. “What is ‘a barbaric yawp’?’’ she asks Anthony. But it eventually becomes clear that Whitman speaks to her no less powerfully than he does to Anthony. What also becomes clear by the end of this fine play is that the connection between the two teenagers runs very deep. Whitman would approve.

I AND YOU

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Play by Lauren Gunderson

Directed by Sean Daniels

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, at Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell, through Nov. 1. Tickets $23-$60, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin
@globe.com
.