Back before the pandemic, my second kid and my wife attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival together (the rest of us were on a camping trip, and that’s how it worked out…) They saw Every Brilliant Thing, and recommended it. When it turned out that The Empty Space was going to do it, my eldest and I decided to go see it.
The play is a bit unusual both in presentation and in origin. According to co-writer Duncan McMillan, its genesis was in the “brilliant things” list, which was developed before there was any sort of a plot to go with it. After a few ideas that never quite fit, McMillan and Jonny Donohoe decided to combine it with an idea for a monologue about suicide, and it clicked.
Every Brilliant Thing is a one-man show, but with significant audience participation. As such, I think it plays best in a smaller venue - hey, a venue like The Empty Space! The single actor acts with a minimal set (or none, in the case of this production), props mostly borrowed from the audience, and nothing that could be really called a costume. He tells the story of a young boy, and later man, who grows up with a suicidal mother, and struggles with his own depression. It sounds like a real downer, but it isn’t.
The counterpart to the darkness of the subject matter is the list. The list the young boy starts of every brilliant thing about life that makes it worth living, starting with “ice cream.” He makes the list for his mother, but she never really responds to it. Later, it is accidentally discovered by the girl he is dating, and she sees a side of him that she didn’t know existed. She helps him add to the list.
The problem is, he has never really dealt with his own trauma, and eventually depression comes for him as well. This leads to the breakup of his marriage, and some really dark days. When he finally, with the help of therapy and some great people in his life, emerges on the other side with some hope of reconciliation.
And then his mother finally does take her own life. The aftermath of this is both devastating and hopeful. We are left with a list of brilliant things that make life worth living that has now reached a million items, through the help of everyone in the protagonist’s life.
The list itself starts out with the obvious little boy things, but progresses toward ever more whimsical and “adult” ideas. The audience members are handed numbered items that they read when prompted by the actor. (Mine was 200,000 something - “That feeling of calm you get when you find yourself in an untenable situation but realize there is nothing you can do about it.” More or less - I am not sure I have the wording exactly correct, but the idea is there…)
In addition to reading these items throughout the play, several members of the audience are asked to play roles - the character’s dad, his school counselor, a couple of professors, his girlfriend. They are either given prompts, short written lines, or in the case of the wedding speech, expected to improvise. Again, this works so much better in a small venue, particularly when it has a lot of theater die-hards there.
The actor in this production was Dakota Nash, who has been in a number of things since we first saw him at CSUB in the role of Pippin. He was truly outstanding in Every Brilliant Thing. His performance of a story that wasn’t autobiographical felt real and raw and genuine. Never overblown, never overacted. It was the kind of self-contained realism that you would expect from a kid who survived trauma by not letting his emotions show too much, and had to learn to feel again. He also connected well with the audience, making us a part of things not as props but as part of a bigger story.
The Empty Space did what it does best, with their low-budget-high-artistic-value approach. Extra chairs were placed in the central stage area, leaving about a 6 by 10 “stage” for the acting. Music was a combination of Motown and old jazz stuff, in keeping with the musical tastes of the protagonist’s dad. Before the show, Dakota and producer Bethany Lahammer greeted the audience and explained the participation to come, and also handed out swag from NAMI Kern County. It all came together for an enjoyable but thought-provoking.
Ultimately, I doubt there is a single person on this planet whose life has not been affected by suicide. Most of us knew someone who succumbed to depression and other mental illness. We have seen the devastating effects of depression in our loved ones, and probably had at least some episodes of it ourselves, at least at times of great stress or grief or trauma. We are human, and we are fragile.
This play doesn’t candy coat things, but it also doesn’t give into to hopelessness. No, we can’t save everyone, but we can try. And we can hang on to those “brilliant things,” because really, life is an amazing miracle, even in all its tragedy and messiness and even - especially perhaps - in the face of our inevitable mortality. As Terry Pratchett (one item on my own “brilliant things” list) put it:
“It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it's called Life.”
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