‘Every Brilliant Thing’ IS Brilliant

By Sarah Spitz

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‘Every Brilliant Thing’ IS Brilliant
From left, audience member and Daniel K. Isaac in Every Brilliant Thing at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Colm Summers.
There have been hundreds of staged iterations of Duncan McMillan and Jonny Donahoe’s play, Every Brilliant Thing, which began life as a short story then morphed into a movie. I’ve neither read nor seen any of these versions, so to me actor Daniel K. Isaac’s tour-de-force performance in this brisk, 70-minute one-act, one-person show is, as the title denotes, nothing short of brilliant. It’s onstage at the Audrey Kenis Theater, that wonderfully adaptable black box stage inside the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through October 15. If you go to just one play this year, this is the one to see. It accomplishes an amazing alchemy: it’s a life-affirming, uplifting story about suicidal depression, told through the lens of the child and later the adult who lived through his mother’s multiple attempts. You’ll be smiling as tears well up; it’s powerfully poignant and simultaneously filled with laugh-out-loud humor. One of the critical elements of this show is spontaneous interaction with members of the audience, who become characters and are prompted to improvise by Isaac. They are neither pre-selected nor pre-rehearsed. The stage is simple, the seating is circular. There’s a colorful splash of oranges, yellows and reds in the center of the floor, and hanging above and around the entire theatre are an unbelievably large number of crocheted quilts, suggestive of an old-fashioned, homey coziness. I’m told that the props master and props artisans went on a nationwide search to find all these amazingly crafted blankets. It isn’t autobiographical and it’s not Isaac’s story, but he makes it his own. And it’s been performed by men, women and even a trio of actors in other stagings since its inception in 2013. The narrator (no name) tells us that he has only had one experience with death, when his old dog, Sherlock Bones was sick and had to be put down. Isaac selected one man from the audience to play the veterinarian who euthanized Sherlock, using another audience member’s jacket to play the part of the dog, and borrowing a different audience member’s pen as the needle to inject the lethal drug. “And that was my experience of death. A loved one becoming an object and being taken away forever.” Then he tells us, one day his father picks him up late from school instead of his mom, because she’s in the hospital. Another man is selected from the audience and Isaac asks him to play the dad, but then switches roles to make it easier for him. Like any normal 7 seven year old, he keeps asking “why” to imaginary explanations about why his mom is in the hospital. But the father is a poor communicator; those answers never really happened, so the boy doesn’t understand that his mom is severely depressed and has tried to take her life. After this, we meet Mrs. Patterson, another audience member so good it was hard to believe she wasn’t a ringer. I asked her after the show. She wasn’t. She helps the boy through his trauma by means of a sock puppet; as Isaac coaxes her, the woman takes off her shoe and sock and sounds like a true school psychology counselor, speaking through Rufus the sock dog. The narrator begins to heal.
Audience member in Every Brilliant Thing
As he does, he begins creating a list of all the “brilliant” (read: happy/great/wonderful – it’s a Britishism) things he can think of worth living for to give his mom. He strives first for 100, then more and more and more, hoping he’ll persuade her to stay alive. By the time he reaches 1000, the list is 314 pages long and his mom is back home. She reads the list–and corrects his spelling.

Before the show, Isaac hands out slips of paper with numbers and words, and when he calls the number, the person with it reads it out loud. “Ice cream,” “the color yellow,” “Indiana Jones movies,” “milk spilt takes” and “piglets” among them. But by now mom has made a second suicide attempt.

“Children of suicide victims blame themselves,” he tells us. When Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, the numbers of suicides in America increased by 12 %, he explains.

We follow the narrator, a mostly-withdrawn kid, through high school and college and into adulthood, through finding and separating from his partner, and going through his own depression.

Don’t think that any of this is a bummer, even when his mom finally succeeds; it’s so beautifully done and so thoroughly engaging that by the time it’s over, you’ll be wanting more. That’s when you can add your own brilliant thing to the post-it notes provided in the theatre’s lobby.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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September 29, 2023