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Every Brilliant Thing: A Life Examined

Every Brilliant Thing: A Life Examined

By Lawrence Henley

Every now and then a new play will arrive on the scene with a refreshing, innovative, and entirely different approach to dramatic performance. With Every Brilliant Thing, British playwright Duncan Macmillan has given us just such a work, introducing a new way to present insightful, cutting-edge single actor theatre in a minimalist format. In doing so he also manages to create an ensemble cast, using techniques that bring audience immersion up to a new level. Of immense value is the show’s ability to pinpoint the virtues of appreciating the best of everything in our world. Macmillan cites this as a key tool in fighting depression, a factor of critical importance when life looks the least promising.

If audience interactivity is to be the future of entertainment in mainstream mediums, it will need to find a bigger place at the table in the world of theatre. Today’s popular culture and tech lifestyles are becoming engrossed with video gaming, virtual reality, intelligent phones, virtual home/personal assistants, and streaming media platforms. As a consequence, it has become increasingly difficult for older, more traditional mediums such as books, music recordings, and live theatre to compete with such spellbinding devices without new approaches and “hooks.”

Dedicated to Macmillan’s father, Every Brilliant Thing is a one-act play employing multiple roles yet with only a single actor’s name listed in the playbill. Indeed, the role of the The Storyteller is intentionally crafted to play only one character. It can be performed by a person of any gender, race, or demographic. The Storyteller is never given a name, with the inference being that his or her experiences described in the play could be similar to those of anyone.

Craftily, Macmillan has opted to create a larger cast by having members of the viewing audience, selected by The Storyteller, perform additional roles throughout the performance. These simple roles include a veterinarian, a former spouse, a retired school counselor (Mrs. Patterson), a college lecturer, and an old pup named Sherlock Bones (a border collie for the dog aficionados). The Storyteller also briefly channels “Dad,” and makes clever use of such ordinary items as a shoe, a coat, and a sock as character puppets to play against. Handily, each of these items can be borrowed from mostly surprised members of the audience.

Every Brilliant Thing was written with a specific performer in mind for the role of The Storyteller, namely Johnny Donahoe, Macmillan’s co-author and friend and a noted British standup comedian. Donahoe inaugurated the role in 2013, also performing it in the United States premiere in 2014. In 2016, it was filmed for showing as a made-for-television movie.

As the play begins, TheStoryteller is a six-year-old whose first experience with loss involves a pet. This proves to be the first of several such experiences. Grimly, The Storyteller’s dad is faced with a most unenviable responsibility: he must inform his child that their deeply depressed wife and mother is in the hospital, the result of the first of several attempts at taking her own life. Unable to carry out the task with much emotion, the father’s awkward disclosure takes place in the family car during the ride to the hospital. While the mother convalesces, the youthful Storyteller sits at home, pondering ways to convince her that life is still worth living.

As a hopeful solution, the child turns scribe and begins to pen what will become a lengthy, enumerated list of every positive and great thing that makes life worth living, no matter how simple any single item on the list might seem at face value: 1. Ice Cream, 2. Water fights, 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV. This handwritten list pours on to the pages with no particular categorization, grouping, or headings. The Storyteller creates it, in part, as a personal coping mechanism. Equally significant, the list is intended to serve as a persuasion device to convince both parents to hang on, stay together, and continue life as a family.  

The list of brilliant things grows. Appending it becomes second nature and a lifelong pastime that usually resurfaces when things begin to look the darkest. As The Storyteller progresses from adolescence through high school, the list expands to a remarkable length, with new entries reflective of each stage of growing up. Eventually regressing, the mother consumes excessive amounts of pills but again fails to end her life. This time around the teenage Storyteller reacts angrily, with more than a tinge of sarcasm directed toward her. Despondent, the father retreats to his sanctuary, the study, where he tries to thwart reality by listening to his large phonograph record collection (with the door closed).

The list periodically resurfaces as the play follows The Storyteller into later years. It’s a life replete with disappointment and heartache (as many lives are), but with each challenge the cathartic list of brilliant things aids in the healing process.

Vintage jazz, jazz vocal, and R&B recordings from the 1930s to the 1970s play an integral part in setting the mood for this intimate performance. Macmillan draws on the catalogues of Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Isaac Hayes, and Cannonball Adderly in setting the smoky, relaxed mood for Every Brilliant Thing. The titles all fit neatly with the text and often provide TheStoryteller’s story with key metaphors: “Drown in My Own Tears,” “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” “My Melancholy Baby,” “You,” and “Some Things Last a Long Time.” Like the Dad, The Storyteller has grown up using music as a coping mechanism, spending endless hours listening to old recordings and reading the album sleeves as if each one was a part of the list.

As the list records its one millionth brilliant thing at play’s end, it’s apparent that The Storyteller has relied heavily on this gargantuan, spectacular list as a critical support tool to help avert the same fate that consumed the mother and destroyed the spirit of the father. This play tackles the difficult twin subjects of depression and suicide, and Macmillan’s explanation about the message of Every Brilliant Thing in The Guardian offers this sage advice on battling depression: "You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it."

To counterbalance the episodes of gloominess in this play, witty Macmillan has infused his script with abundant and memorable humor. Here’s one such zinger: “If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.” And, while you probably won’t exit this play humming “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah,” by the same token you won’t leave the theatre terribly depressed. On the contrary, ultimately Every Brilliant Thing proves to be a highly interactive, uplifting, and positive experience. Go see it. Everyone should.