CHESTER — With the possible exception of Joshua Jackson's James and Lauren Ridloff's Sarah in Berkshire Theatre Group's production of "Children of a Lesser God," there is no more winning and appealing a couple on an area stage right now than Lilli Hokama's Caroline and Paul Pontrelli's Anthony in director Kristen van Ginhoven's poignant, smart and richly feeling production of Lauren Gunderson's "I and You" at Chester Theatre Company.
In what has become a well-worn mantra, Gunderson was the hottest living playwright in America in 2016. Indeed, Berkshires audiences git a sampling of her work last summer with Shakespeare & Company's production of "The Taming." and in March of this year with WAM Theatre's revival of its 2013 production of "Emilie: La Marquise du Ch telet Defends Her Life Tonight," also directed by van Ginhoven, who is WAM's co-founding artistic director.
The prize-winning Gunderson can be wildly uneven, not only from play to play but oftwen within one play.
There is nothing uneven — wildly or otherwise — in "I and You," a compact, emotionally rich two-hander about two teenagers: Hokama's Caroline, a creative, fiercely independent, emotionally self-protective girl who is being kept at home while waiting to be called for a life-saving liver transplant, and Pontrelli's Anthony, a bright, creative, funny, life-embracing classmate, although they've never met, who shows up, unannounced, at Caroline's house early one evening as her voluntary partner on a project about Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" that is due the next day.
As it turns out over the course of the time they spend together, they complement one another neatly. She opens him to her world of pop culture and music — Elvis Presley in particular. He leads her into an extraordinary discovery of Whitman's landmark poem which culminates in a remarkable oral presentation she puts together and tries out for Anthony in one of the play's, and this production's, most captivating moments.
Their focus in examining Whitman's work — relevant portions of which are reprinted in the program — begins to center around life and death; sex as an impulse of both.
Mortality is a presence in Caroline's room (evocatively and revealingly designed by Juliana von Haubrich). Indeed, for Caroline, mortality has been a fact of her life for virtually all the years she has lived. For Anthony, death has become an immediate presence when, during basketball practice earlier in the day, a team member suddenly collapsed and died.
Gunderson, van Ginhoven, Hokama and Pontrelli chart all of this with authenticity and integrity, especially when, in a bold, unexpected risk, "I and You" takes a stunning turn and the ground rules change dramatically. In lesser writing hands, the stylistic shift would be awkward, at best; manipulative in the worst possible way. But Gunderson is in full command here and van Ginhoven and her two gifted young actors are more than up to the challenge.
Hokama and Pontelli shift emotional gears with affecting understanding as "Leaves of Grass" takes hold of Caroline and Anthony at the deepest levels of heart, mind and soul.
Throughout "I and You,' Caroline and Anthony are pulled by opposing forces of dark and light; despair and hope; denial and affirmation.
I'm not a believer in spoiler alerts but it's not giving anything away to say that, without mawkish sentiment, when push comes to shove, "I and You" chooses affirmation..
Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212