A Brilliant Thing Coming to Town
Every Brilliant Thing starts off as the story of a seven-year-old boy whose mother has been hospitalized with suicidal depression. In an effort to lift her spirits, he begins creating a list of the joys of life from his perspective, from ice cream, water fights, and badgers, to, as time goes by, Christopher Walken’s voice, the idea of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler, and planning a declaration of love.
The clever device isn’t the only original way the play explores the impact and repercussions of serious mental health problems in a family – Every Brilliant Thing is performed as a one-man show, sans props but with lots of audience interaction, with volunteers reading items from the list or otherwise engaging with the actor. The piece also uses healthy amounts of humor built into the interactions to alleviate the tension of the heavy subject, not to diminish its impact, but to make a difficult subject more accessible.
That’s because the 2013 show was co-created by British author Duncan Macmillan, who also wrote the short story, and Jonny Donahoe, stand-up comedian, comedic actor, and playwright.
“An early version was just an actor telling a story, which was a beautiful and moving experience, but I felt it would mean more to have the form match the content,” explained Donahoe. “If you create a piece of work that is about connection, it has to also exist in the room in the moment with the people who are there.”
After that shift, Donahoe realized that he needed to perform it himself, since, as he put it, the show doesn’t lend itself well to acting.
“It’s meant to be done simply and honestly, more like stand-up than a traditional acting job because you’re directly engaging with people rather than embodying a character that maintains a distance from the audience,” he said.
Donahoe starred as Every Brilliant Thing grew from a short single theater run to an inter-continental hit, including off-Broadway and as an HBO special. But after a few years and more than 400 shows spanning 20 countries he stepped away to pursue other projects, including a new self-penned, one-man show about his own life.
This weekend, however, Donahoe is reviving the piece after a four-year hiatus in a series of performances to benefit New Beginnings Counseling Center, the longtime Santa Barbara nonprofit that has often employed the arts and entertainers to raise money and draw awareness to its mission to serve its largely financially underprivileged clientele.
“It’s a really beautiful thing to perform a show that’s so bound with mental health for a charity that works with disadvantaged people who have had mental health issues,” said Donahoe, who will be visiting Santa Barbara for the first time. “Putting those two things together made it a really lovely place to restart.”
The actor said stepping back into the role kicked in once muscle memory took over after the first re-reading of the script, and he’s looking forward to once again taking on the challenge of weaving the 25 percent of improv-interaction into the words on the page. “It’s easy to keep coming back to because it’s always fresh, every night is new.”
Donahoe said his body is once again embracing the Every Brilliant Thing’s concept of dealing with severe depression and suicidal ideation with the play’s tone. “It’s such a joyful exploration of those things, a journey of finding laughter in darkness, so much so that it’s quite a pleasure to perform. There are lots of very sad moments and you go through a huge range of emotions, but you come to a place of peace and joy by the end. It’s an incredibly cathartic experience, both for me and those who are watching it.”
In the near-decade since the play debuted, the world has shifted slightly for the better in that there’s been a lessening of the stigma of suicide and mental illness from a place where it couldn’t be discussed or even be mentioned in public, Donahoe said. But he’s also aware that the problem itself is worsening, perhaps a result of the pandemic and increasing polarization.
“In both Britain and America, there are more people taking their own lives than seven years ago,” he said. “So for all of our progress in being able to talk about things, we’re still not achieving the goal. But this is a show about kindness, compassion, and community, and having it support New Beginnings is a step in the right direction.”
Every Brilliant Thing performs at 7 pm, September 23; 7:30 pm, September 24; and 3 pm, September 25, with a reception before or after the show. Tickets cost $99-$149. Info at (805) 963-0408 or centerstagetheater.org.