Manbites Dog Theater
703 Foster St., Durham
Through Dec. 20

Honestly, it’s not a justified fear of stage mothers that keeps us from reviewing high school productions. Instead, it’s the recognition that we cannot expect budding artists to produce professional-level work, and that students deserve the chance to grow in a safe harbor outside of the sometimes-bruising arena of critical commentary.

Still, regional theaters have placed children in roles well outside of the traditional cameos of holiday shows, with differing results, several times this season. Though Ana Radulescu impressed us in a solid November performance of Crooked at Common Ground Theatre, the student actor in an earlier offering at Deep Dish Theater was noticeably less accomplished.

Manbites Dog Theater closes its fall season this week with a production that takes us even further into this uncertain territory. High school sophomore Gerald Jones III and senior Natalie Izlar are the two actors in Lauren Gunderson’s sometimes funny and suddenly poignant drama, I AND YOU.

The casting impulse is understandable. After all, Gunderson’s two characters, Caroline and Anthony, are misfit high school students ostensibly thrown together at the last minute in what promises to be a thoroughly uninspiring English class project: parsing out the use of personal pronouns in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

But as the plot develops, we gradually discover that both of these characters are threatened: Caroline from a lifelong genetic disease now requiring a liver transplant; Anthony from a more obscure danger. Though the scene could hardly be more domestictwo kids doing homework in Caroline’s bedroomon Derrick Ivey’s somewhat skimpy set, we slowly realize that both characters are in extreme circumstances, set apart from garden-variety teenage angst. If anything, Whitman’s transcendental musings on life, death, nature and love are ultimately too germane to them both.

On opening night, Dec. 5, I was struck by the passion both actors brought to their roles. Izlar was a difficult, smart Caroline who keeps her illnessand other peopleat arms’ length with her sharp, snarky wit, while Jones portrayed a bewildered boy trying to manage Caroline’s belligerence and salvage his art-deficient assignment.

I also couldn’t help but notice that, under Jeff Storer’s direction, both actors displayed an emotional bandwidth a bit narrower than their characters, and a tendency to habituate to certain gestures and facial expressions.

But when I saw the show again last week, I found that the production had significantly developed. Izlar and Jones were clearly stronger, more believable and more organic in their roles, although both still dealt at times with the difficulties mentioned above. My rating reflects the second time I saw the production, and it remains a less enthusiastic endorsement than the audience’s standing ovation that night.

Whitman’s poetry still has the power to make the hairs on the back of our necks rise. The admonitions in his prologue instruct us to “argue not concerning God;” his benediction to the good Earth directs us to look for him under our boot-soles.

These and other meditations on what connects and severs us from one another and all creation are voiced here by two good high school actors, whose currentand entirely appropriatelevels of development don’t entirely meet the standards we expect from a mainstage production at Manbites Dog Theater.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The kids are all right”