Birnton Theatricals’ intimate production of I and You leaves large lasting impression

There is nothing I love more than an intimate theatre space with a small but committed audience and a company that knocks it out of the park. I love the quiet glee with which, many years later, I can pity the people who never saw the first production of A Boy’s Own Jedi Handbook, for example.

This is one of those shows that, years from now, I will gloat about seeing.

Birnton Theatricals is a small local company that has a mandate to produce theatre for kids and young adults, but their Mosaic Series is intended for older audiences. As such, I and You is a play that revolves around two teenagers, but its construction and themes make it universal in its appeal. Caroline has liver failure and is awaiting a transplant, unable to go to school but still hoping to graduate with her class. Her classmate Anthony arrives at her house without warning to work on a joint project for their American Lit class, bringing with him a dog-eared copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and pleading with her to help him to finish the project.

Working with what is clearly a tiny budget, the creative team have nonetheless built a striking production. Director Chris Stockton, set designer Brad Leavitt, and lighting designer David Smith create a simple but entirely convincing teenage girl’s bedroom, which, like every teenage girl’s bedroom, says volumes about her character. They don’t scrimp on the theatricality of the play’s ending, however. The script at one point calls for the walls to “vanish, fall or fly away” and their low-key solution is quite perfect.

Natasha Strickey gives a powerful, nuanced performance as Caroline, initially guarded and even hostile, but gradually won over by Anthony’s persistence. Conner Christmas has the less obviously heart-wrenching role as the laid-back Anthony who is determined to get to know her, but his subtlety and restraint are a perfect foil for Caroline’s more dramatic persona. Anthony’s passion for Whitman’s poetry is the spark that brings the two characters closer together, and as they learn about each other, they discover where they are the same, and where they are different. He is a fan of basketball and John Coltrane, while she plays enthusiastic air piano along with Jerry Lee Lewis and says she doesn’t know much about sports but hears that “there’s a lot of them.”

Anthony invades her room at the beginning of the play with a seemingly random quote from Whitman: “I and this mystery, here we stand,” and the play is filled with Whitman references that foreshadow the mystery that the play explores. It’s a play that would lend itself to more than one viewing to fully appreciate what is clearly very careful construction.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson is a bit of a dark horse in American theatre. Although she is certainly no household name (yet), her plays have become staples in regional theatres across the U.S. American Theatre magazine surveyed non-profit theatres and determined that for the 2017-18 season, Gunderson was the most-produced playwright in the country — ahead (by quite a long way) of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and Eugene O’Neill. It’s easy to see how that happened — her dialogue is engaging and hyper-realistic, while her story and images are intensely theatrical. This staging of perhaps her most well-known play is a Canadian premiere, with separate productions opening here and at Regina’s Globe Theatre on exactly the same day. Someday, you will want to say that you remember the first time you saw it in a little theatre at the base of the Calgary Tower.

.(Photo: Conner Christmas & Natasha Strickey)

I and You runs in the Lunchbox Theatre space until April 21

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.