By Sue Henninger
“Every Brilliant Thing,” Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, Kitchen Theatre Company, through December 10, (607) 272-0570, KitchenTheatre.org. No intermission.
Audience engagement with Duncan Macmillan’s (with Jonny Donahoe) simple, but emotionally layered, play began well before theatergoers even took their seats.
Entering KTC’s lobby we found a display board with pens, Post-It notes, and the invitation to share our own “brilliant” things, postings that ranged from serious to tongue-in-cheek. Once in the theater itself, seats had been relocated to both sides of the stage, leaving a narrow strip in the center where the one-man show was performed. Actor Karl Gregory, a longtime Ithaca favorite, roamed the aisles handing out slips of paper along with instructions to read the sentence aloud when he called out your number. These were received by some with enthusiasm, others with trepidation, however no one was able to resist Gregory’s persuasive charms. These initial interactions literally set the stage for Gregory to enlist various audience members to serve as supporting characters throughout the play.
Every Brilliant Thing is the story of a nameless son whose mother is depressed and suicidal. In the opening scene, Gregory’s elderly dog, Sherlock Bones, needs to be euthanized by the family veterinarian. This is the young boy’s first experience with death and he speaks eloquently of thinking about the things of Sherlock’s that would no longer be necessary – the dog’s toys, food and leash – and of how he suddenly understood that a loved one had gradually morphed into an object and was being “taken away from him forever.”
This graceful and poignant introduction to loss was followed by a dual scene. In the first instance, Gregory is picked up at elementary school by his father who takes him to the hospital his mother has been admitted to following an unsuccessful attempt to end her life. On the drive there, father and son try to navigate this emotionally fraught occurrence through a series of questions and answers.
Gregory then confesses that this was actually how he wished the conversation had gone. In reality he said, when he asked his father why his mother was in the hospital, the unhelpful response was that she’d “done something stupid.” Left to fend for himself in the hospital waiting room, the boy begins his list of “brilliant things,” trying to cheer himself, and perhaps his mother, up.
He and his father return home without her and his father immediately retreats to his office to listen to music. Young Gregory provides a surprisingly insightful explanation of how his father communicates his mood, and receptiveness to other family members, through his choice of records, reminding us of how acutely tuned in children can be to their environments.
The audience follows Gregory and his quirky, life-affirming list (which he continues to add to) through adolescence, his mother’s second suicide attempt, college years, and his first love, Sam. Over the years the list grows longer, serving as a means of helping him communicate positively with Sam and others in his life. Things finally seem to be going well for the likable Gregory, so it is disheartening when he begins to self-sabotage his happiness, becoming argumentative, angry and isolating himself.
Perhaps the most moving words of the play were when Gregory confessed that, for many children of parents diagnosed with depression, a debilitating fear is that one day, not only will they feel like that parent, but that genetics and learned behavior will cause them to actually become that parent. Later, when Sam has left him, suggesting that
Gregory needs professional help, he miserably reflects that he has begun to live with the certainty that there could be a moment “when one no longer wanted to live.” Overcome by despair, yet unwilling to give up hope, Gregory reaches out to the one adult he felt like he could talk to honestly, an act of faith that opens the door to reengagement with the world around him.
Wendy Dann has done a spectacular job of directing this bittersweet, roller coaster of a play, in which music (Don Tindall, Sound Design) also plays a significant role in. Every Brilliant Thing is a play that only an actor with Gregory’s technical skill, ingenuity, sense of humor, and willingness to show human vulnerability could pull off. The way the play is scripted, Gregory is granted the freedom to spontaneously choose the way he wishes to interact with the audience, which he uses to maximum advantage, frequently asking audience members to play opposite sex roles. His husband Sam was portrayed (quite expertly!) by a young woman, and a man was highly credible as Gregory’s empathic female counselor.
The performance you see may not be identical to the play I saw, but that’s the beauty of it. Though the basic plotline will remain the same, the playwright has left a lot of room for variation, a reminder that each person’s experience with mental illness may be very different, though the accompanying emotions are often similar.
A strength of the Kitchen Theatre Company has been its directors’ willingness to take a chance with cutting-edge characters and topics. If the first three plays of the 2017-2018 season are any indication, Producing Artistic Director M. Bevin O’Gara seems to be turning up the heat at KTC by experimenting with the theatre’s physical environment as well. So far this has resulted in some unforgettable performances!