EVERY BRILLIANT THING: What Hope Is
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA (Tuckahoe) 23238
Performances: March 1-15, 2019
Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Groups, Students & $12 with RVATA card; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door
Info: (804) 343-6364 or hattheatre.org
It’s hard to imagine a warm and engaging comedy about mental illness and suicide but that is exactly what the team of Vicky L. Scallion/Artistic Director, Chris Hester/Actor, and Frank Foster/Director and Scenic Designer have pulled off with Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing, now running in the far West End’s HATTheatre.
In short, the one-man play is about a man looking back over his life and telling the story of how he survived as the child of a mother whose first attempt at suicide occurred when he was a 7-year-old school boy waiting for his mom to pick him up from school. While Hester is the only professional actor on stage, the script calls for him to enlist the help of numerous audience members. Some read lines from a card when their number is called. For example, #1 Ice Cream. Others have actual roles and characters with coached or adlibbed lines. There is the veterinarian who is called to euthanize the family’s elderly dog, Paws McCartney, and Mrs. Patterson, who is a school counselor with a Snoopy sock puppet. There is his dad and his girlfriend Sam. Interestingly, Hester’s character, the main character, remains unnamed.
Every Brilliant Thing is one boy’s attempt to fight depression. By the time his mother gets out of the hospital, he had begun a list of things worth living for. Ice cream. Yellow. People falling down. Peeing in the ocean. Many of these things are so simple, and others are quite funny. But even though he keeps adding to the list, his mother doesn’t get better. The boy grows into a man, and fears, too, will succumb to the demons of depression. His father, unable to help, copes by retreating into his home office with his records. In an early poignant moment – and there are many – the boy stands outside the door of his father’s study waiting to see what type of music he will play. That will let him know whether to enter or head downstairs and fend for himself.
Every Brilliant Thing reminds us that it is natural for the children of suicidal parents to blame themselves. There have been many studies completed, and it has been determined that suicide is contagious. After a high-profile or celebrity suicide, suicide rates spike sharply. There is even a name for the phenomenon of copycat suicides: the Werther effect, which takes it name from Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.
The audience interaction creates a distraction or diversion that balances the serious nature of the subject with unexpected interjections of humor. Foster has also created balance with his design elements. He has transformed Scallion’s tiny black box theater into a comfortable living room with a variety of chairs and sofas set on both ends of the room, including the area that is usually reserved as the stage, and small tables that hold conversational lamps, trivia cards, a chessboard. There’s even complimentary coffee and hot chocolate and warm chocolate chip cookies for the audience. Erin Barclay designed the lighting, which incorporates all the little lamps. Hester has the area between the two banks of seats, with occasional forays into the audience. At one point he breathlessly attempts to high-five every member of the audience. His sweaty brow and panting are genuine and endearing, as is the rest of his performance.
One of the best parts about Every Brilliant Thing is the sound design, by Scallion, based on the authors’ instructions. Music cues the young boy on whether to interact with his father. Music marks the family’s happy times – when they gather around a piano in their kitchen, of all places, and sing soul songs. There’s a record player and an album in a yellowed jacket that Hester plays at the end. And there is a soundscape that includes Ray Charles and Cab Calloway and other music appropriate to the time (which in this case begins in 1982 and covers several decades as the boy becomes a man).
Every Brilliant Thing will be different each time it is performed, as the new audience members bring new inflections to their lines. At Sunday’s Acts of Faith talkback, Hester revealed that he looks forward to relating to new audience member at each performance. He himself is no stranger to depression and mental illness in the family. When the audience was informally polled to see how many had been affected either personally or with mental illness in their families, every single person present raised a hand. Maybe the list couldn’t save this boy’s mother, but it seems to have saved him, and making lists and keeping journals are components of many self-help programs and therapies.
I recommend Every Brilliant Thing because it is an intriguing production. It will make you laugh, it may make you cry, as it did the young woman who played the role of Sam on Sunday afternoon. But more importantly, it provides a non-threatening opening to discuss these very real and very timely issues: depression; mental illness – or better yet, mental health; suicide. Every Brilliant Thing puts the audience to work and reminds us that there is always hope.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: photos uncredited at the time of publication