Award-Baiting Play 'I and You' Now Playing at Phoenix Theatre

Playwright Lauren Gunderson brings a rolling world-premiere play to Indy that takes a cue from a literary favorite. Here, the show’s two cast members talk roles and growing pains.

If you are a literature or theater buff, the Phoenix Theatre’s production of I and You, a play based loosely on one of Walt Whitman’s most famous pieces, is a must see.

Katherine Shelton (a senior at Broad Ripple High School) plays Caroline, an 18-year-old girl in need of a new liver. Due to her health issues, she has been unable to attend school for some time. Co-star Eli Curry (a junior at Franklin College) plays her classmate, Anthony. The premise involves an assignment from Caroline and Anthony’s high-school English teacher that pertains to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In addition to the poem being quoted throughout the show, the themes within it run parallel to many of those in Whitman’s work, but not in a too-literal, cloying way.

“The moral of it is very much related back to what Whitman is trying to teach—that everyone is a part of everything, everywhere,” Shelton says of the show. “No one really dies, because everyone lives.”

Teaser: There is a deadly plot twist in this one.

The playwright is Lauren Gunderson, known for taking on new projects very quickly. I and You is in the midst of what’s called a rolling world premiere, with this Indiana run just its third curtain call nationwide to date. The script has already seen audiences in California and Maryland and is greeting excellent reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle (Gunderson lives in the Bay area) and The Washington Post. It is also up for acclaim as a finalist for both a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (honoring English female playwrights) and a 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association’s New Play Award.

The play is living in and thriving in all metaphorical senses, but it is also still literally going through growing pains. During the one-month rehearsal time for this Phoenix show, playwright Gunderson sent them a few script changes, one of which took out an entire page of dialogue that centered mostly on Curry’s character.

“The rewrites that we did get made a lot of sense to me,” says Curry. “There was one specifically that really keyed me into an aspect of the character that I wasn’t finding room for in the script as is. I love how it is scripted. It gets metaphorical, but I don’t think we ever lose the reality of our play within the metaphor. We are always in the now, dealing with something that is real and concrete.”

The actors and the characters felt some growing pains themselves. “Caroline and I actually have a lot in common,” says Shelton of her character. Though that crossover is there, the differences between them take the spotlight: “Where I would withdraw into myself and start writing, Caroline would lash out.” Outbursts persist throughout the play, as Caroline speaks her mind, feeling that she has little to lose. Shelton is much more thoughtful and deliberate than Caroline, she says, noting that her greatest challenge, in hindsight, was adapting to her role quickly.

Conversely, her counterpart, Curry, seems to slip into his role seamlessly. “[Anthony] has this confidence and this way about him that is admirable,” says Curry.

“Eli and I are very different personalities,” says Shelton. “He is very outgoing, he is hilarious, where I am more reserved and timid. He really helped bring me out of my shell.”

I and You. Showtimes through April 13, Thursdays 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. Phoenix Theatre, 749 North Park Ave., 317-635-7529. Tickets: adults $28, under age 21 $18.