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Kitchen Theatre Company produces ‘I and You,’ an unlikely inspiring play

Ian Duff, right, runs through a table read for “I and You” with co-star Anna Stefanic.
By Kellen Beck and Emily Masters

The plot: Two high schoolers doing homework.

“It doesn’t sound like it would be interesting at all, just two teenagers arguing for an hour and a half essentially,” said actor Anna Stefanic, who plays main character Caroline in the Kitchen Theatre Company’s production of “I and You.”

“But you don’t think about that when you’re listening to it, or when you’re reading it, because she’s a brilliant, brilliant writer,” Stefanic said of Lauren Gunderson, the playwright for the piece.

The Ithaca-based theater company’s production of “I and You” will be one of the more than 20 professional productions of Gunderson’s play since its release in 2013.

The play is about Caroline, who has a chronic illness, and Anthony, a classmate who comes over with waffle fries and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” to complete a poetry project. It runs from Nov. 8 to 22 at the Kitchen Theatre Company on W. State St.

“During the time it takes two teenagers to do their homework, they stand behind each other’s eyes and see a wisdom and love that forms who they will be for the rest of their lives and beyond,” Gunderson wrote on her blog. She was not available for an interview.

Stefanic said one of the components of the play that has inspired her the most is the conversation surrounding chronic illness. She said it’s an experience rarely represented in the media.Caroline is facing “a potential death sentence if she doesn’t get a liver transplant soon enough,” Gunderson wrote in another blog post.“She’s really great at putting in words that experience,” Stefanic said about Gunderson. “Everyone I’ve passed [the script] along to has marveled at how accurate she is in describing the experience of living with a chronic illness and that there aren’t a whole lot of stories about that that are widely available, so that’s why it means a lot to me.”Duff said the fact that the narrative is told by teenagers, instead of fully matured adults, means the story is relatable to a wider audience.

“That’s different and that’s important in itself, because young people have a voice and sometimes they are overlooked,” Duff said. “You know, you treat teenagers as teenagers. You don’t think of them as, that they have something important to say or valuable information, but in this play they do.”

The two teenagers giggle — Caroline quips at one point, “He is a badass. Walter Whitman, national badass” — but also have deep conversations about death and their futures.

“We’re talking about the play in like a, ‘You know, remember the person you met in high school and how they changed your life?’ Because that carries over, that lasts forever, that feeling,” said director Emily Jackson, who is also an artistic associate at the Kitchen Theatre Company.

Actor Olivia Shine, who is playing Caroline in the first high school production of “I and You” at Senn Arts in Chicago, wrote in Gunderson’s blog about why she chose to try out for the role. Shine said she feels an affinity with the character, especially their similar connections to their bedrooms.

“Caroline’s confinement makes me appreciate private space, and my own affinity for small, personal decorations helps me understand the importance of her own,” Shine wrote. “I decorate excessively because it makes me feel at home, Caroline does it because it helps keep her personality alive in captivity.”

The Kitchen Theatre Company is advertising the show to all ages, Jackson said, but has made an effort to reach out to high school students who, like Shine, can personally connect to the story.

“They giggle and they get the humor of it,” Jackson said, after reading a portion of the play with a young adult book club at the Tompkins County Public Library.

On the other hand, she said, adults are also touched.

“Some members of our board, who are prominent members of the community and of business, education, academia — all different kinds of people but adults, ‘real people’ as Caroline says — they too were moved, and laughing, by the play,” Jackson said. “And I’m excited to see that carry over through the run of the show.”

“I and You” was one of the plays selected for the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere in 2014, which propelled Gunderson into the spotlight early in her career.

“She is one of the top most-produced playwrights of the season,” Jackson said. “One of the only women — like one of three women —on that list. And she seems to be producing a lot of work quickly.”

Like the playwright, the only two actors cast for the Kitchen Theatre Company’s production are also just beginning their careers. Duff and Stefanic came to Ithaca from New York City for the show.

“There’s a lot of theater going on at once in New York City, which means that if you’re a smaller production, a lot of people don’t really care and don’t go to see it,” Stefanic said.

Stefanic said she watched the Kitchen Theatre Company perform another play before an audience on Oct. 22. She said, “It’s amazing how there are people who are not theater people here who go see theater and love it and they really want to be there. So I’m excited to do theater for people who want to be seeing theater.”

This play in particular will draw a diverse audience, Stefanic said.

“There’s such a variety of subject matter,” she said. “There’s sort of the main plot, or plots, but then there’s also a lot of really in depth discussion of poetry and jazz and other music and cultural things.”

Stefanic said she is excited to see “the demographic that [the play] will draw, just based on different facets of the play, I’m interested in what each person will take away based on what they came to see.”




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