There is a moment near the end of Artists Repertory Theatre's new production of I and You that perfectly encapsulates the play's balance of intimacy and overpowering grandeur. Caroline (Emily Eisele), a high school senior in need of a liver transplant, turns the lights off in her bedroom but doesn't go to sleep. Instead, she projects a field of stars across her walls, whisking us into the inky depths of outer space.
That moment captures what makes this rendition of I and You an exhilarating coming-of-age saga. Lauren Gunderson's writing may be far from perfect—particularly during the play's ambitious but misguided conclusion—but director JoAnn Johnson and her emotionally freewheeling actors skillfully explore how an ordinary afternoon of chatter and homework can, like a supernova, erupt into something life-changing.
I and You begins with Caroline's classmate Anthony (Blake Stone) bursting into her room armed with a plate of cookies and a posterboard about Walt Whitman. The two have been assigned to create a presentation of Whitman's poem "Song of Myself" for school. Because Caroline's illness keeps her housebound, Anthony brings the project to her so they can finish it before it's due the next day.
Metaphorical swords are drawn the minute Anthony arrives. Caroline heckles him about everything from his passion for Pop-Tarts to his rampant Whitman fanboyism, while Anthony's attempts to puncture Caroline's heavy emotional armor are repeatedly rebuffed. But like the suave John Coltrane music they listen to on Anthony's smartphone, Anthony and Caroline ultimately find their rhythm, beginning a relationship so intense that it defies easy labels like "romance" and "friendship."
The actors embody this transformation with a grace that makes the journey feel thoroughly real. Stone's performance is so seamless that when Anthony shakily reveals that he has just witnessed one of his basketball teammates die, it's hard to believe that he's the same kid who spouted lines like, "I think the amount of glitter is adequate."
Eisele is equally astonishing as Caroline. To see the character go from irritably snatching cookies out of Anthony's hands to revealing to him her dreams of working as a photographer in New York City—dreams that she knows she may not live to fulfill—is to feel you've been granted a precious glimpse into a tormented and beautiful soul.
Tim Stapleton's scenic design—which is packed with delightful details such as the many photos Caroline has snapped of cats wearing striped hats—is the story's third character. It also plays a key role in the play's most irksome scene. At one point, the walls of the set abruptly move outward and away from Caroline, setting the stage for a plot twist that diminishes the story's realism for the sake of bulldozer-subtle symbolism and a cheap shock. It suggests that Gunderson overlooked that one of I and You's most notable strengths is the purity of its premise—two people, one room, one bond.
Despite distracting flourishes, Johnson, Eisele and Stone seem to recognize that the greatness of I and You lies in the thrill of simply spending time with Caroline and Anthony. Just as the characters come to relish one another's company, you come to relish theirs—whether Caroline is playing air piano to the beat of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" or she and Anthony are together under that field of projected stars, looking to each other, but also to everything that lies beyond.
SEE IT: I and You is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, 2 pm Sunday, through June 17. Additional show 7:30 pm Tuesday, June 12; no 7:30 shows Saturday, June 2, and Sunday, June 17. $25-$50.