by Ruth Ross
Suicide—attempted or committed—is never a solitary act, for it affects family, friends and colleagues long after its occurrence. Nor is suicide a laughing matter, although there are some funny bits in Every Brilliant Thing, now receiving its New Jersey premiere at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre in Summit.
Penned by Duncan MacMillan (with Jonny Donahoe), this engrossing, poignant dramedy presents a wry, albeit serious, look at the effect his mother’s multiple suicide attempts have on the unnamed character whom we follow from the ages of 7 to 27 as he tries mightily to deal with his own reactions to this seminal event. To do so, he makes a long list for his mother of all the brilliant things in the world that make him (and he hopes, her) happy. He knows she’s read it because she corrected his spelling, but she never talks to him about it. Soon, the list takes on a life of its own, offering him solace when the world around him seems bleak.
Tautly directed by Laura Ekstrand, Every Brilliant Thing involves the audience in this journey through a novel form of audience participation: Upon entering the theater, each patron is urged to take a card and, when called upon, to read what is written on it. Or, an audience member is called to come up onstage and play a role (with dialogue supplied by the playwright), say, of his father, school counselor or college lecturer. Thus, with an audience of just 50 (several seated on the stage), Every Brilliant Thing gives us an intimate, almost personal, look at the serious problem of mental illness and invests us in the protagonist’s life. It’s clever without being precious, touching without being maudlin or sentimental.
Clark Scott Carmichael (above), onstage and talking nonstop for 95 minutes, turns in a masterful performance. He seamlessly transitions from child to teenager to college student to young adult, without playing “cute.” He’s so convincing that we never doubt that this is his story. MacMillan has written some nice dialogue for the audience member playing his father, school counselor and the woman he eventually marries, opening the play so that it feels like a natural dialogue.
Over the two decades of his mother’s depression and attempts to take her own life, MacMillan chronicles the change in her son’s reaction, from confusion to disgust to an acknowledgement that he, too, suffers from the same “hard-wired” melancholy that drove her to do what his father calls “a stupid thing.” His making a list to lift her spirits is, in itself, a brilliant thing; that he uses it for his own comfort as he copes with the complexity of being alive, makes us feel glad and hopeful.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s a belief that the treatment of suicide in novels (The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe) and television (the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why) or the seemingly ubiquitous reports of celebrity suicides can trigger a teenager to take his or her own life. While that subject is addressed in Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan MacMillan and Dreamcatcher Rep suggest that heightened awareness of mental health issues and professional help are keys to dealing with this problem. And, I am sure that I was not the only audience member for whom this play touched a nerve.
Once again, Dreamcatcher Rep has brought us a polished production of a timely play about a provocative subject. By talking about a serious problem in an unserious way, Every Brilliant Thing enriches our understanding of the problem and given us the power to deal with it. Bravo and thank you!
Every Brilliant Thing will be performed at The Oakes Center, 120 Morris Avenue, Summit, through October 8. Seating is limited to 50 patrons a performance. For information and tickets, call 800.838.3006 or visit www.dreamcatcherrep.org online.