Monday, March 05, 2018

A ‘Brilliant’ Performance at Olney

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. 

Photo: Stan Barouh
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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Olney Theatre Center’s 2018-19 Season


SOUTH PACIFIC

 Music by Richard Rodgers • Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II • Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan • Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener • Music Direction by Kristen Rosenfeld • Choreography by Darren Lee • Directed by Alan Muraoka

AUGUST 31 - OCTOBER 7, 2018 • MAINSTAGE

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LABOUR OF LOVE

A comedy by James Graham • Directed by Leora Morris

SEPTEMBER 26 - OCTOBER 28, 2018 • MULITZ-GUDELSKY THEATRE LAB

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ELF THE MUSICAL

 Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin • Music by Matthew Sklar • Lyrics by Chad Beguelin • Based on the New Line Cinema film by David Berenbaum • Music Direction by Angie Benson • Choreography by Tara Jeanne Vallee • Directed by Michael Bobbitt

NOVEMBER 9, 2018 - JANUARY 6, 2019 • MAINSTAGE

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ONCE

 Book by Enda Walsh • Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová • Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney • Music Direction by Christopher Youstra • Directed and Choreographed by Marcia M. Dodge

FEBRUARY 6 - MARCH 10, 2019 • MAINSTAGE

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OIL

 By Ella Hickson • Directed by Tracy Brigden

FEBRUARY 27 - MARCH 31, 2019 • MULITZ-GUDELSKY THEATRE LAB

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A COMEDY OF TENORS

 By Ken Ludwig • Directed by Jason King Jones

APRIL 10 - MAY 12, 2019 • MAINSTAGE

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THE MARY STUART PROJECT

 Based on the play by Friedrich Schiller • Adapted by Jason Loewith and the company • Directed by Jason Loewith

MAY 8 - JUNE 9, 2019 • MULITZ-GUDELSKY THEATRE LAB

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ROALD'S DAHL MATILDA THE MUSICAL

 Book by Dennis Kelly • Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin

JUNE 21 - JULY 21, 2019 • MAINSTAGE

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TIGER STYLE!

 By Mike Lew

JULY 17 - AUGUST 18, 2019 • MULITZ-GUDELSKY THEATRE LAB


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