Every Brilliant Thing at the Pumphouse through January 21, various times
Three and a half stars
The first sign that something is amiss comes when Dad shows up to drive him home from school.
Usually, it’s mum who picks him up, but today, she’s in the hospital, because she tried to take her life.
That’s the unlikely launching point for Every Brilliant Thing, which – despite its grim opening – is actually a life-affirming, comic solo show that opened Tuesday at the Pumphouse as part of the 2017 High Performance Rodeo.
It’s hard for the six-year-old boy, played by British comedian Jonny Donahoe, to understand what is wrong with his mom, so he does what kids do in those situations: tries to cheer her up.
That leads to the list, where he begins chronicling the awesomeness of life in the hopes that his mom will remember that there are way too many reasons to keep living than there are reasons to die.
There’s ice cream. Laughing until milk blows out your nose. Kung fu movies. Christopher Walken’s voice.
Donahoe is a warm, engaging storyteller, who enlists the audience into helping him share the story of the six-year-old boy, his depressed mom and his list.
That involves some of the folks who choose to sit in the front row, plus dozens more who receive one or more brilliant things to read out loud at the appropriate moment as Donahoe alternates between sharing the story and reading out the list.
It’s impossible not to be drawn into the world of Every Brilliant Thing, even though the story is both heartbreakingly sad and at the same time, a wee bit static.
That’s because there’s a gap in the storytelling – namely the gulf between Donahoe’s six year old boy’s desire to cheer up mum and the reality of depression and mental illness – that doesn’t really close, despite the list growing over the years to include hundreds of thousands of things, as the young boy grows up to be a depressed man who discovers that all the lists in the world can’t really re-adjust the wiring in your brain.
The list makes us laugh and fall in love with life, even as the characters onstage sink into a kind of mental hell. Every Brilliant Thing contains one glorious epiphany that it keeps repeating in the hope that sooner or later, it might produce a miraculous recovery that we kind of know it won’t.
Years ago, Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother explored a similar sort of theme, in a very different style – as have many playwrights over the years, including Tennessee Williams, in many of his brilliant plays, and British playwright Sarah Kane.
Every Brilliant Thing is ingenious in its presentation, charming and life-affirming in delivery and – lovely – clocks in at exactly 60 minutes long.
It might be about beating back the blues, but spend an hour with Donahoe and his glorious list and you’re liable to walk out into the world looking at life in a whole different way.
Stephen Hunt is the 2017 High Performance Rodeo writer-in-residence