Every Brilliant Thing at the Barrow Street Theatre
December 6th to March 29th
“You give me reason to live…” Randy Newman
“Every Brilliant Thing”, Jonny Donahoe’s solo performance of the play written by Duncan Macmillan together with Donahoe, starts with a list of 314 reasons to live. His character has just learned of his mom’s first attempted suicide so he prepares the list and places it under her pillow because he doesn’t know what else to do. As a seven year old, his list begins with “Ice Cream, Water Fights, Staying up Late and Being Allowed to Watch TV, the Color Yellow, Things with Stripes, Roller Coasters, and People Falling Over.”
Coming face to face with the attempted suicide of a loved one has to be one of the most devastatingly painful experiences imaginable. To experience that as a young boy must create an emotional sink hole from here to China. Together with help from his dad, school guidance counselor, an English teacher, the family’s veterinarian who first introduces him to the concept of death when his dog dies, his girlfriend, the audience (more on that momentarily), and a generous helping of comic relief Donahoe continues to try and grapple with the news and the list continues to grow.
He uses his low-key comedic charm and spends about 20 min. before each show to recruit volunteer audience members to play these additional characters and assist in reciting The List. Most rose well to the occasion and added a personal, spontaneous touch. Ironically, they were taping the performance for a TV special and at the end of the show the producer asked everyone to stick around because some of the audience participation lines were not properly recorded and needed additional takes.
As he grows through his teens to a young man there were repeated suicide attempts and each time, Donahoe’s character revisits and expands his list. Of course the nature of his reasons to live mature right along with him so that by young adulthood “Sex” and “Staying Up All Night” make it to the list as numbers 9,996 and 9,999, respectively.
His dad passes on his appreciation for music and there’s no disputing that selections from Ray Charles, Ornette Coleman, and Billie Holliday that make a cameo appearance and onto the list are truly reasons to live. And once into adulthood, as he approaches the one million mark, the more esoteric pleasures like “Peeling off a Sheet of Wallpaper in One Intact Piece” emerges as 999,996.
Suicide is a challenging topic many people have difficulty coming to grips with and as such, is not one you’d think would be good fodder for an audience participation stage play. But the creative team for Every Brilliant Thing managed to find the right mix of levity to balance the solemn subject matter. And in the end, its message is sobering but optimistic:
“If you live a full life and you get to the end of it without ever once feeling crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention. Things get better… they don’t always get brilliant, but they get better.”