Fortunately, it has become increasingly common these days for celebrities or other well-known individuals to publicly discuss issues related to their mental health, such as depression, anxiety and panic attacks. It is obviously a positive trend because bringing these problems to light may well prevent suicide and other crises. Stage Door Productions, led by producer Kevin Caraher, is contributing to this public discussion. It’s a local company that presents educational theatre that focuses on mental health, as well as addiction and recovery issues. Its latest offering was “Every Brilliant Thing,” a one-act play, co-written by British playwright Duncan Macmillan with comedian Jonny Donahoe. I saw the show, also directed by Caraher, on Friday at The District Theatre.
It was not until later that I regretted (more about that later) sitting directly on the stage in one of two small sections, open to the audience, that flanked the playing area. As I took my seat, I was greeted by Ben Asaykwee, who starred in the show and was roaming the house handing out Post-it notes. At the time, it all seemed vaguely familiar. The artistic director of his own company, Q Artistry, I have interviewed and reviewed his productions many times and know him well. Eventually, Asaykwee handed me one of the Post-its with the number 31 and the world “birdsong” written on it, instructing me to say the word when he called my number. It was then I realized audience participation was part of the proceedings. Again, it all seemed familiar, but I still could not put my finger on it. Though I am myself an actor, I am not too keen on audience participation because as a reviewer, I try to maintain professional distance. Little did I know, until later, I would have no choice in the matter.
“Every Brilliant Thing” is a heartrending, dark comedy, which tells the story of a six-year-old boy who deals with his mother’s attempted suicide and a father who is emotionally unavailable. To cope, he creates a list of everything that makes him happy and his life worth living. His list of “brilliant things” also helps him cope with the same depression that haunts his mother, as we follow him through his first experience with death, his school years, another of his mother’s suicide attempts, and falling in and out of love. Throughout his life, he employs the list to help him stay positive and overcome his demons.
Throughout the one-hour-and-15-minute-long play, we hear items from the list, such as rainbows, ice cream, roller coasters, dancing in public, friendly cats, and numerous other inconsequential things from audience members chosen to read them aloud. And during what is essentially a monologue, the unnamed man also selects individuals who become ad-hoc cast members, playing such figures as the boy’s father, girlfriend, school counselor, and a vet. Yours truly was singled out to play the school counselor.
Always in constant motion, the charismatic Asaykwee was highly effective at improvising with the people he selected to play characters. Most of them seemed not only relaxed, but they also turned in surprisingly measured, believable performances. Asaykwee himself gave an astonishing performance, managing what is essentially a monologue, the numbers on the list, and the improvisation with audience members. Though he made occasional gaffes in his dialogue, Asaykwee was in command of the material, which was consistently hilarious.
The play is sometimes sad, but because it is told with laughter and joy, its focus on mental health, existential crisis, love, life, and family are easier to digest. And who knows? Someone seeing “Every Brilliant Thing” who is suffering from depression or considering suicide might even be uplifted by its message of hope and choose life over the alternative.
It was not until midway through the show that I realized I saw the play in January of 2019 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre on its Upperstage. But, of course, with a completely different “cast” participating, it was not the same show as the Stage Door production and a reinforcement that the play’s concept and format was, indeed, brilliant. As far as my “role” as the counselor, who used a sock puppet to communicate with the boy, as much as I wanted to be a good sport, I would characterize my performance as “hesitant.”