By Joseph Szalinski
Life is full of many terrifying things: unrealized potential, death, illness, and most terribly, group projects. A last-minute poster board about Leaves of Grass by everyone’s favorite Transcendentalist they pretend to have read, Walt Whitman, pits Caroline (Maya Anabella) and Anthony (Jake Moon) in an awkwardly frenzied study session that brilliantly meters out their introductions to one another, and ultimately, themselves. Tom Mirth and Catherine Hayashi (who also provides a brief voice over) masterfully helm this production of I & You, playwright Lauren Gunderson’s take on the literary one-hit wonder, the debut of Iron Horse Theatre’s 2023 season, produced by London Cain.
Maya Anabella delivers a stirring performance as Caroline, the chronically ill student and budding photographer who takes some really sick pictures. She wonderfully captures the candor of a house-ridden teen with wanderlust and a desire to just experience a life she’s had to fight for from the start. Her verve serves her rendition suitably, occasionally claiming bits of dialogue here and there in the wake of her excitement, but she also possesses the ability to dial it back to display a tenderness that hasn’t been calcified by extended isolation or rumination on an unfair fate.
Jake Moon is immediately engaging as Anthony, the only other high school basketball player to like poetry as much as Jim Carroll, sans depravity. As much as Anthony seems like a construction of fiction—a jock who studies Latin, quotes free verse during free throws, and likes Coltrane, Jake ushers him into existence with a skillful portrayal that makes it seem like he’s a classmate we’ve all had and wanted to befriend. Even the handful of his reactions that were slightly exaggerated were still incredibly endearing, helping to illustrate the sincerely goofy dude at the heart of “the perfect son,” humanizing him further.
Their chemistry, paralleled by their unrelenting energy, naturally evolves over the 90-minute runtime, with nothing being forced. Even when they are in opposition, their rapport produces beautiful moments. Being the only two performers in a show is demanding. There are no breaks or changes in dynamic afforded by a third actor, which makes what the two of them do even more impressive.
Choosing to include an intermission in a shorter show was my only hangup, initially. Usually, it’s best to not interrupt the flow of things, but the break’s placement was wisely selected, as it resumes with a callback to an earlier joke, and then deftly finishes off with the half hour or so left. Plus, the brief pause allowed for continued exploration of the grounds and more refreshments in the outdoor portion of the property, where the audience was abuzz with discussion of what we had all just seen up until that point.
Acting aside, this show features simple, yet powerful, technical elements, orchestrated by an equally small production staff. The one room in which the events unfold is visually mesmerizing; the tapestry on the wall above Caroline’s bed doesn’t draw too much attention as it is countered by an eclectic collage of photos on the wall by the door. There’s enough going on to defy the confines of the allotted space, but it also allows the performers to receive full attention from the audience. Music plays a big role in the play. Though sparse, the inclusion of it helps flesh out the characters and reinforces the themes, particularly the jazz. Alan Hayashi is able to do so much with so little, expertly tackling lighting and sound at crucial moments in the story.
Iron Horse Theatre, with its gorgeous space and terrific curation of productions and talent, is sure to continue to establish itself as a spot to see all kinds of awesome performances.
“I and You” runs until June 17th at the Iron Horse Theater, 348 Maplewood Avenue, Ambridge, PA 15003. For more information, click here.