Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is an iconic literary piece including depth of character, scene, and emotion that requires significant introspection to truly appreciate. Combining the intricacies of this literary masterpiece and bringing it to a stage play that is approachable for teenage audiences may seem a daunting task, but it is one that Pygmalion Productions has tackled ably thanks to a trio of talent. Few young actors can carry two-hander plays with as much elegance and understanding of pacing and character as the two stars of I and You, Cora Fossen and Tristan Johnson. Under the direction of Teresa Sanderson, they work together to create a careful, powerfully poignant theatrical moment that is, to put it simply, breathtaking.
The show revolves around the juxtaposition of the two characters, Caroline, who is trapped inside, yearning to go outside, and Anthony, who is outside yearning to look inward. Caroline is sick and cannot go to school, her only means of communication with the outside world her cellphone and laptop. She spends a great deal of time looking at the minutiae around her, capturing snapshots of her everyday life as an escape from the doldrums in which she is mired. Her frustration stems from the fact that she is afraid, and alone. Anthony arrives, a vibrant young man bursting with life and energy, carrying the outside world with him, while within him burns a deep desire for introspection and quietude.
Director Teresa Sanderson “read[s] a lot of plays but loved this play the moment [she] read it” and “lobbied hard for it.” She’s passionate about working with young actors, and her passion can be seen in the excitement that her team has in working together to bring Lauren Gunderson’s piece to life. The true beauty of the show can be seen in the dynamic push and pull between the characters. They play off each other in an effortless way, a snapshot of a real, raw human experience.
Johnson, as Anthony, commands the stage from lights up. His huge personality and bright voice fill the space, drawing attention to his powerful actions and decisive dialogue. During an interview, the Westminster College student said the greatest moment he had developing the production was in working with Sanderson and Fossen as a team, being able to act as “three artists working together to create a vision.” His role as Anthony was made easier by his personal connection to the character. “Anthony lives the entire show in the present. I try to live my life that way as well,” he says.
It was important for leading lady Cora Fossen to connect with her character as well, to see her as “a real person.” The daughter of actors Mark and April Fossen, Cora is a senior at Cottonwood High School and this is her first professional show. She is using her age to her advantage, as she is the same age as Caroline would be in the show, lending her the ability to relate to her character, and see through Caroline’s eyes. Fossen said her breakthrough moment in the show was “working together with [Johnson] to break through a difficult scene of dialogue” to truly be able to bring Caroline to life, a feat which she has accomplished with flying colors.
Whitman is the common ground that brings the two characters together, and the introduction of Leaves of Grass draws a single thread through the entire piece. Whitman’s exploration of the meaning of the word “You” is a central plot point of the production, as is the poet’s thirst for life, and his refusal to be tamed, or take life sitting on the sidelines. Whitman wanted to “sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”, and throughout I and You, Anthony and Caroline, each in their own way, learn to take a step closer to doing just the same. The show will grant audiences who are of the same age as the characters, and those who once were, the opportunity to experience the present together, revealing the meaning of what it means to be “you” in a suspended world.
“I and You,” Pygmalion Productions, Rose Wagner Center Black Box, Salt Lake City, Feb. 2-17, 7:30 p.m. ,90 minutes with no intermission.