'Every Brilliant Thing': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Jonny Donahoe in "Every Brilliant Thing"
A play about suicidal depression that's both heartbreaking and joyous

This one-man play starring British actor-comedian Jonny Donahoe concerns a young boy's response to his mother's suicide attempt

There's probably no better way to beat the holiday blues than seeing Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan Macmillan's one-man play performed and co-written by British actor-comedian Jonny Donahoe. This wise and witty examination of crippling depression and the effect it has on family members is now receiving its North American premiere after hit engagements in Edinburgh and London, and it's not a moment too soon.

Performed in the round at the intimate Barrow Street Theatre, the show lasts a little over an hour; it features the charismatic and funny Donahoe as the unnamed narrator, relating the story of his response to his mother's suicide attempt when he was seven years old. In a desperate effort to cheer her up, he devises a list of "every brilliant thing" worth living for. The list's sweetly childlike nature is signaled by its first three entries: "1. Ice cream. 2. Water fights. 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV."

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As the boy grows up, eventually going to university and falling in love and getting married, he continues adding entries to the list, which eventually swells to nearly a million. Its items grow increasingly specific and whimsical: "The feeling of calm which follows the realization that, although you may be in a regrettable situation, there's nothing you can do about it." But as he ultimately and sadly learns, his best intentions are not enough to prevent tragedy.

To say that we're complicit in his efforts is an understatement. Before the show begins, Donahoe hands out pieces of paper to numerous audience members who are later prompted to announce entries from the list. Several others are called upon to play various characters in the piece, including a veterinarian, a schoolteacher wielding a sock puppet and the narrator's father and girlfriend.

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But while the show might have lapsed into twee, the results are far from it. The affable performer manipulates his charges with masterful wit, delivering hilarious ad libs when given the opportunity. Whether exuberantly air-drumming to Curtis Mayfield's recording of "Move On Up," or sadly commenting, "If you live a long life and get to the end of it without once feeling crushingly depressed, then you probably haven't been paying attention," he has the audience in the palm of his hand.

By the end of the evening, you'll probably be thinking of things of your own to add to the list of what makes life worth living. And right near the top should be Every Brilliant Thing.    

Cast: Jonny Donahoe


Playwright: Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe

Director: George Perrin

Production: Paines Plough, Pentabus Theatre Company

Presented by Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, Tom Wirtshafter, Patrick Daly, Kelpie Arts, Scott Rudin, Marc & Lisa Biales, Terry Allen Kramer, Need Monet

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