One-Man Show Casts 'Brilliant' Light On Realities Of Suicide, Depression
Imagine going to a small, off-Broadway theater for a one-person show that relies heavily on audience participation — and it's all about depression and suicide. That might sound like a theatrical nightmare, but the show in question — Every Brilliant Thing, currently playing at the Barrow Street Theatre — is also very funny and has been getting rave reviews.
"Normally, I loathe that kind of thing," says Ben Brantley, the chief drama critic for The New York Times.
He says he never would have seen this show if he didn't have to, but he's glad he did. "I've never seen a production of that nature that makes you feel so comfortable from the very beginning. It walks such a fine line between overly sentimental and overly bleak, but I think it gets the balance just right."
Part of what makes that balance work is British comedian Jonny Donahoe. He spends 20 minutes before each performance walking through the audience, chatting and handing out small slips of paper, which he eventually asks audience members to read from. Each slip of paper contains one of the brilliant, life-affirming things his character thinks of to help cheer up his suicidal mother — like "ice cream" or "water fights." As the play progresses, the papers' messages start to reflect his own personal narrative.
In those first 20 minutes, Donahoe also gets a sense of who might be willing to be brought onstage and who might not. He says, "That's the casting process. ... There are people who feel very uncomfortable doing it and I can see that and that's absolutely fine; there's no obligation for them to do anything they don't want to. There are some people who are incredibly keen — too keen. I've got to avoid them as well."
Every Brilliant Thing began as a short story by Duncan Macmillan, who adapted it for the stage with help from Donahoe and director George Perrin. Macmillan says they tried various approaches with the material, but decided upon a setting where the audience faces each other and has to participate.
"It felt like when suicidal depression or suicide was appearing in theater or in film or in TV, it was oversimplified, it was glamorized to some extent, it was fetishized, or it was stigmatized," Macmillan says. "There didn't seem to be any voices sort of talking about the complex realities of it."
Still, Donahoe says he tries to bring a light touch and a sense of humor. "I think that's just the best way you can deal with it, not just in a show, but as a human being," he says. "I mean, you are going to, whoever you are, at some point experience mental health issues, whether that is because you suffer from them yourself or your partner does or your parents. But it's too common for it to pass you by."
And Donahoe doesn't only get audience members to read from slips of paper during the hour-long show; he also asks them to play a veterinarian, a school counselor, his father and his romantic partner, Sam. Macmillan describes it as a very inclusive process.
"Jonny says he always just tries to cast the most loveable person in the room as Sam, and sometimes he feels like the person he meets in the first 20 minutes who's the most loveable is a woman and sometimes it's a man," he explains. "And we got very excited by that. And we got excited by having mixed race relationships and different age gaps and all sorts of things."
"I was incredibly moved and it was a little embarrassing. ... You're totally exposed to everyone else in the audience. And there I am trying to keep a poker face and I have tears running down my face, but I'm not ashamed of them."
On a recent Friday evening, Sam was played by Brittany Burke, a college freshman. She had a great time. "I loved it," she says. "It was incredible. It made me think more than anything I've seen in a long time, and I really appreciated that."
Keith Darcy, who lectures about business ethics, found himself toasting the couple as the groom's father. After the show, Darcy told me his own mother committed suicide. "While I could feel the humor of it, I could also feel the pain of it," he says. "And I was deeply touched by it."
And that's what makes the play so powerful, according to the New York Times' Ben Brantley. "I was incredibly moved and it was a little embarrassing," he says. "That was the only way in which I felt uncomfortable, in that the house lights never go down. So, of course, you're totally exposed to everyone else in the audience. And there I am trying to keep a poker face and I have tears running down my face, but I'm not ashamed of them."
I cried, too.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.