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Every Brilliant Thing

Duncan MacMillan's solo play finds a joyful audience for its North American premiere at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Jonny Donahoe in a scene from Duncan MacMillan's Every Brilliant Thing, directed by George Perrin, at the Barrow Street Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Be prepared to participate when you take your seat at Every Brilliant Thing. Also be prepared to leave that seat at some point during the performance. No need to worry — but it couldn't hurt to come with a ready-made wedding toast and a novel you wouldn't mind being caught with.

Duncan MacMillan's one-man play, performed by British comedian and musician Jonny Donahoe, crosses the pond for its North American premiere at the Barrow Street Theatre. Beyond the hefty contributions from the crowd that make it anything but a "one-man" endeavor, it's difficult to describe the performance piece as a "play" in the traditional sense. From the theater's in-the-round configuration to its star's casual rapport with the audience, Every Brilliant Thing is far more a communal experience — bordering on group therapy — than a passively absorbed theatrical presentation. Donahoe, however, with his genuine demeanor and infectious smile, succeeds in turning a piece about the grave subject of suicide into the most joyful session you'll ever attend.

The show opens on a particularly somber note as our unnamed protagonist recalls his mother's first suicide attempt. Besides the passing of a childhood dog, this is the seven-year-old boy's first experience with death and the baggage that inevitably comes with it. Even so, the air in the room never sinks under the weight of this heavy load. A reenactment of his pup's final trip to the vet may not sound like a way to lighten the mood, but the brief detour adds a mild levity and childlike innocence to a subject typically filed under "adult content."

Naïveté, in fact, inspires a stroke of brilliance as the young boy decides to provide his mother with a comprehensive list of "every brilliant thing" in the world that makes life worth living. "Ice cream," "things with stripes," and "kind old people who aren't weird and don't smell unusual" all make the list and are shouted out from every corner of the room. The contents of the list reliably elicit smiles, particularly by the lucky readers. Unfortunately (though unsurprisingly for those familiar with the insidious nature of depression), it's no cure for his mother's condition — nor his own, which he sadly develops as he grows into adulthood.

Where MacMillan's text ends and Donahoe's performance begins is anyone's guess — a tribute to George Perrin's seamless direction and Donahoe's impeccably natural delivery. A fair number of patrons probably leave the theater falsely believing Donahoe to be the author of his own staged memoir. Seeing the show under this conceit very well may be the best way to experience Every Brilliant Thing, the content of which is not necessarily artistically inspired but insightful nonetheless. The play offers pointed commentary on the glamorous public narrative that often surrounds suicide and unabashedly condemns the practice, at one point referencing the origins of what is now known as the Werther Effect. The name stems from Goethe's 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose protagonist sets off a trend among young men to commit suicide on behalf of unrequited love. As the play's list of brilliant things climbs into the hundreds of thousands, it's clear that MacMillan has discovered joy to be just as contagious as despair.