Content transparency: this post includes mention of depression and suicide.
In the minutes before the show Every Brilliant Thing proper begins, actor Marcus Weiss darts among the audience handing out yellow post-it notes. Mine says “995. Bubble wrap”; my theater-going partner has “2. Water fights.” On the walls around us there are more post-its: “Free parking on Sundays”; “Sand between my toes”; “Fresh cup of coffee”; “Cats watch out the window and chirp at the birds.”
These are a few of the many – as it turns out, more than a million – “brilliant things” that constitute an important list for the narrator Weiss plays: a list of things that make life worth living. He began this list, he tells us, as a 7-year old boy, in the aftermath of his mother’s first attempt at suicide (hence “1. Ice cream; 2. Water fights”). The story he tells is poignant and tragic: it’s a story of his coping and hoping, of his lingering trauma from being raised by a clinically depressed parent, and of his long road to healing, partly through his on again off again commitment to building his list of every brilliant thing there is. But it’s also a story filled with optimism and lightheartedness, due both to playwright Duncan Macmillan’s comic writing and Weiss’s disarming performance style.
A good deal of the comedy of the performance comes from the audience’s participation and Weiss’s improvised responses to what audience members say and do. The post-it notes play an important role in this participation: when he calls out the number on a post-it, the audience member reads out the item, often in ways that surprise and delight. A few members of the audience are asked to help in more substantial ways, by playing, for example, a vet who comes to euthanize the narrator’s dog; or the narrator’s father; or “Sam,” the person he ends up marrying. Each iteration of the show will, of course, be different, depending on who Weiss selects for the various roles: for example, on opening night, one audience member unexpectedly added some information to the item on his post-it note, and another – chosen to play the school counselor who uses a sock dog to encourage the narrator to share his feelings about his mother – clearly had some experience in a therapeutic setting, which made the improvised encounter unexpectedly tender and sweet.
Weiss is a winning performer as the narrator, nimble, quick, and preternaturally present to the room. He not only has excellent comic timing, but also shifts from boisterous and upbeat to introspective and sad in the blink of an eye. The space is configured in the round, and director Andrew Paul has Weiss in near constant motion so that it never feels as if he has his back to anyone. Moreover, Weiss so quickly establishes a sense of trust and connection with the audience that even those who loathe audience participation will find themselves willing to play along (although if that describes you, I advise not sitting in the front row).
Every Brilliant Thing is a show that is as informative as it is entertaining. You may learn, for example, that suicide can be contagious, a fact that has been known for centuries (a famous example is the “Werther effect” after the publication of Goethe’s novel about a young man who kills himself over unrequited love); or that how the media reports on suicide has a direct impact on whether others will attempt to end their own lives. Every Brilliant Thing is also compassionate and candid about the fact that psychological struggle is a natural and normal part of the human condition: as the narrator says, if you’ve never felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention. But its overall message is a refreshingly uplifting gift: there are more than a million tangible and intangible things that make life worth living, and the list just keeps growing.
For example: “1,000,001. Finishing a blog post on a holiday afternoon.” 🙂