The Narrator (Alexander Strain), stands on the top step of an aisle and says that he has three words for anyone in the audience who is contemplating suicide: his voice lowers to nearly a whisper: “Don’t do it.”
The young man has not let go of the belief that he can be the one to prevent such an act, a belief he has held onto since he was a child.
Every Brilliant Thing is not about suicide, although on the surface it seems to be about how that act affects the family. It is about something much greater. It is a demonstration of the wonder that is our ability as humans to understand and connect with each other.
You won’t have the same experience at Every Brilliant Thing as we had on Sunday afternoon. Strain will still unfold the story, standing alone in the center stage, surrounded by four sections of seats. He will say the same words. He will make the same movements. The difference will be what you, the audience, bring to playwright Duncan Macmillan’s story.
One afternoon, his father picks up the seven year old Narrator from school. He opens the door to the passenger seat – the child usually sits in the back. They begin:
Father: Put on your seat belt, ‘why?’ Notice I said ‘they’, because, as he has already done once before, Strain has invited someone to play a role. Simply respond to every answer with ‘why?’ he told him . Or as our silver haired volunteer said, when the answer revealed that the boy’s mother didn’t wish to live ‘but why?’
When his mother returns home from the hospital, the Narrator imagines what every child in his situation imagines – that he has the power to make sure she doesn’t go back. He makes a list of every brilliant thing he has discovered in life. Each written on a piece of paper with a number on top. You may be handed one before the performance and instructed that when the Narrator calls out your number, you read that brilliant thing.
Several people will be invited to play specific roles, as our silver haired gentleman was. And thus the play hands the audience the stunning opportunity to lend not just their presence, but their voices and shared humanity to the unfolding of the story.
The Narrator finds three hundred forty-two brilliant things about life after his mother’s first suicide attempt. After her second attempt, he continues his list, hoping she will find and read it. By the time of her third, our young man, now an adult, has realized that he’s not making the list for his mother, but for himself.
Olney Theatre’s decision to cast Alexander Strain in this role is a canny choice. A veteran Helen Hayes nominated actor, he left acting several years ago to pursue an M.A. in Forensic Psychology. It is difficult to image anyone who could play this role more brilliantly than he.
Every Brilliant Thing
closes April 1, 2018
Details and tickets
Strain fills the Lab Theatre at Olney with his natural warmth. He tells this story plainly, in as un-mannered and un-actorly way as possible. When he describes himself at seven, he makes no attempt to impersonate a seven-year-old; when he ages ten years, he does not put on the stomping rebellion of a seventeen-year-old male, but recalls it gently, with understanding and compassion. He radiates sincerity, so that we realize that although this is entirely a work of fiction, every word of it is true.
His performance seems effortless, although it is highly choreographed. For example, when the Narrator wants us to hear a bongo solo within a longer recorded piece, director Jason Loewith construes a physically exhausting scene which leaves the character in an aisle, gasping for breath with just enough strength left for one more run to center stage. “Listen!” he shouts, falling to his knees. “Bongos!” And a millisecond later, we hear them.
It may surprise you that this play, given its subject, is funny in the way that life is funny. It won’t surprise you that the Narrator’s life goes to some dark places. Nor that through much of it he persists in finding brilliant things. The total number of them caused our audience to gasp.
What will undoubtedly surprise you is that the playwright only provided the first seven. Olney Theatre Center crowdsourced the others through social media. At the end of the play, the Narrator pulls an industrial dolly center stage, loaded with boxes. Those on top are open to reveal everything he has found brilliant in this life. They are actually submissions sent to Olney from around the country. You can read them as you leave. Children scrawled their ideas on colored slips. Most are typed. We were shown one letter from the stack. It came from a woman in Texas who was in a major car accident the year before. She sent one hundred things, written from her wheelchair. Making the list made her feel better, she wrote. Seeing this play may do the same for you.
Every Brilliant Thing is nothing short of a celebration of the fact that, for those who are able to perceive them, life is full of brilliant things.
In the spirit of the play, I have listed one of the extraordinary things I have discovered in the comments below, and invite you to share some of yours.
Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe . Directed by Jason Loewith . Featuring Alexander Strain . Scenic design by Paige Hathaway . Costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny . Lighting design by Max Doolittle . Sound design by Jane Behre and Ryan Gravett . Dennis A. Blackledge is Director of Production . Ben Walsh is the Stage Manager . Reviewed by Lorraine Treanor.