|Alexander Strain Photo: Stan Barouh|
When one attends the theater with the hope of experiencing some laughter to escape from everyday problems, the last thing you would expect is a play whose underlying theme is depression and suicide. Yet, Every Brilliant Thing, a play by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, manages to pull that off.
Olney Theatre Center’s artistic director Jason Loewith directed this unusual one-man performance starring Alexander Strain that is currently playing in the black box Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney. The intimate theater is set up with four audience seating sections surrounding a small stage that had, inexplicably, a bunch of Oriental rugs spread on the floor. #hocoarts
But is it really a one-man show as advertised? Well, it is if you discount the dozens of audience members who, prior to the show, received directly from the lead performer pieces of paper and other items containing a numerical cue and text with which to participate throughout the play. These folks either shout out an item from a list of brilliant things in the world or briefly play a character.
That list had been devised by a boy beginning at age seven after learning of his mother’s attempted suicide. Through the narration by Mr. Strain, we find out that the purpose of the list is to demonstrate that with all the wonders and joys in the world enumerated on it, life is worth living.
It starts out with childish ideas, such as ice cream and staying up past bedtime. Then as the play progresses, Mr. Strain moves through adolescence and young adulthood where he adds items. Peeing in the ocean where nobody will know is such an entry. Falling in love is another. So is waking up next to someone. Even “The prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler”—my assigned line—was included as number 777,777.
On and on it goes with audience members reeling off another item. Ultimately he succeeds to form a list nearing the million mark—verbally skipping hundreds of thousands, of course—since it is only a one-hour play.
Yet, it is Mr. Strain, a multiple Helen Hayes Award nominee and one-time Helen Hayes winner, who works with the audience, partly through improvisational quips, that makes the performance so entertaining and sturdy. Audience members play such roles as a veterinarian who is asked to euthanize the boy’s dog; a teacher who takes her shoe and sock off to create a sock puppet; his father; and his girlfriend then later wife.
Mr. Strain’s fast-on-his feet retorts and ad libs along with his entering all four sections of the audience at one time or another create a cabaret atmosphere, what with the in-the-round set and the audience involvement. He exudes warmth, charm and sincerity to augment his well-timed humorous lines while also exhibiting the sorrow his character feels throughout his life to this point. Adding to the superlative performance is Mr. Strain’s high level of energy that provides much action and movement on the stage.
Sprinkled throughout are bits and pieces of music that had an impact on his life adeptly handled by sound designers Jane Behre and Ryan Gravett.
Let’s hand out praise to those audience members who played these characters the evening the play was reviewed. They’re not actors but seemed to emit the needed pathos when called upon and were convincing. The rest of the audience was appreciative. Each performance will bring in a new “supporting cast,” which will add a dimension of unpredictability.
Interwoven with the comical features, however, is the reality of mental illness, depression and suicide attempts and how these can affect a family and one’s view of the world and life itself.
It is during a conversation with his father (Mr. Strain portrayed the father, and an audience member played him as a seven year-old) whereby through a series of “why” questions, the youngster learns from his father his mother’s unhappiness and eventual attempt to hurt herself. This segment is the most compelling, emotional, gut-wrenching part of the play.
Noting the sensitivity of the subject matter, the theater’s program contains a page devoted to suicide prevention including a list of resources to consult if an audience member or someone he or she knows is suffering from suicidal thoughts.
But the heaviness of the subject matter does not linger too long as the list continues to be divulged with Duncan Macmillan’s witty words and Mr. Strain’s frolicking delivery creating the needed balance.
The short play scampers along at a brisk, somewhat frenetic pace. It is a unique presentation on many levels, and it is moving as well as entertaining. You should definitely put Every Brilliant Thing on your own list of things to do.
Running Time. One hour with no intermission.
Advisory: Every Brilliant Thing contains adult subject matter and is not suitable for children under age 13.
Every Brilliant Thing runs through April 1 at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online .
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