Directed by Sean Daniels
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“We two, how long we were fool’d,/Now transmuted, we swiftly escape as Nature escapes,/We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return./We have voided all but freedom and all but our joy.” Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”
After receiving clearance from Caroline’s (Kayla Ferguson) mother, high school classmate Anthony (Reggie D. White) shows up in Caroline’s bedroom accompanied by his book bag and a line from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” – “I and this mystery, here we stand.” Obviously surprised by Anthony’s unannounced arrival, Caroline initially rejects Anthony’s attempts to convince her they need to work on their American Literature project but eventually trusts him and opens up to the project and to Anthony’s endearing personality.
Anthony succeeds in convincing Caroline she a good match for Whitman’s poetry and its apparent nihilism and further opens her to Whitman’s more transcendental and metaphysical qualities that penetrate the depths of her current condition. Caroline has been homebound awaiting a liver transplant without which she faces imminent death. Playwright Lauren Gunderson skillfully creates a parallel universe between Whitman’s life and poetry and the relationship between Caroline and Anthony. Ms. Gunderson explores all the possibilities of the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘I.’
At first, this seems to be a well-crafted play about friendship and understanding in the face of death and dying. Caroline is dying and Anthony witnessed the death of a teammate on the basketball court just before visiting Caroline. Both are bereft and vulnerable. But it becomes evident there is more happening here on a variety of levels and the audience member needs to pay particular attention to important details provided by the playwright. Why, for example does Caroline not know Anthony from school and why does he want to meet her and what does he hope will work between them? Why does Caroline’s mother allow a stranger into her daughter’s bedroom? Why doesn’t Caroline’s mother ever deliver the soft drink Caroline texts her mother to bring for Anthony? And what’s that beeping noise in the bedroom: a smoke detector or perhaps something else?
These details lead to a surprise ending, one that is as cataclysmic as it is electrifying. Under Sean Daniels’ careful direction, Ms. Ferguson and Mr. White deliver exquisite performances that manage to dodge the obvious and keep the suspense in high gear throughout the play. It is only after the unanticipated ending that the audience member reviews all that has transpired and experiences dozens of “aha” moments that only register as relevant after the play’s dénouement. Michael Carnahan’s set design is appropriate and serves the surprise ending well. Brian J. Lilienthal’s lighting is unnecessarily obtuse and adds little to the play until the very end.
This well constructed play will remain with you for quite some time after the end of the performance and perhaps lure you back for a second look. In the end neither Caroline nor Anthony are fooled by the restrictions of mortality and society. They “have circled and circled and arrived home again” and “have voided all but freedom and all but [their] own joy.” Home, it turns out, will be different for each of them but their freedom and joy – and that aforementioned secret – will “grow in the openings side by side” forever and they will be “deathless.”