Review: ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at Olney Theatre Center

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Five minutes into the start of Every Brilliant Thing, most of the audience had already cried for the first time – and had laughed aloud. By the end of the show, the entire room seemed to be infused with a spirit of camaraderie and hope, tinged with sadness for life’s missed opportunities.

Alexander Strain as the Narrator in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Alexander Strain as The Narrator in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Every Brilliant Thing was brilliantly written by Duncan Macmillan with the collaboration of Jonny Donahoe, and this one-man show is directed by Olney’s Artistic Director, Jason Loewith.

The show is billed as a one-man show, but, in reality, everyone in the audience was a participant, some more than others. Before the show officially began, actor Alexander Strain, a young man who left acting to earn his M.A. in Forensic and Legal Psychology before making his debut at Olney, was climbing into the bleachers set up around the four sides of the black box room.

He would approach a seated audience member, chat a moment, and leave a message in the person’s hands. A rolling coffee cart sat in the middle of the “stage” area. The audience members helped themselves to the coffee and platters of cookies before the cart was wheeled off. The floor was covered with a mélange of patterned Persian-style carpets of varying sizes – a nice patchwork of rich color.

As the show started, Strain was alone in the center of the room.

In character, Strain talked about his list of “everything worth living for.” It was his segue into the show’s central themes – suicide and the fact that there is help for those who seek to be rescued from the entrapment of depression.

But the message is not delivered as a sermon. It is tenderly wrapped around the words of the writers, Strain’s improvisations, and the interactions with the audience.

The central conceit of the show revolves around a list of reasons to embrace life. The list started, he said, when he was seven years old and his dog, Sherlock Bones, had to be put down by a veterinarian. At one point, Strain turned to a woman in the audience and asked her to be the veterinarian. She complied and was shaken by the experience.

Time passes and Strain’s character learns his mother has attempted suicide. Upon her return from the hospital a week later, he presents her with his first list to inspire her.

He noted “Children blame themselves for their parents’ suicide attempts,” and the audience nodded sadly. “Every time a celebrity, like Marilyn Monroe, takes their life, there’s a spike in suicides,” Strain said. “It’s called the ‘Werther Effect,’ from the book The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

His message throughout was simple, “For those contemplating suicide: Don’t do it. Things get better.” A show about suicide prevention risks veering toward the depressing or pedantic, but the brilliance of Every Brilliant Thing lies in its ability to take the audience on an uplifting journey of hope and beauty.

The creative team at Olney includes Sound Designers Jaen Behre and Ryan Gravett, Lighting Designer Max Doolittle, Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway, Costume Design Debra Kim Sivigny, and Production Stage Manager Ben Walsh.

The show was sold out Saturday night. And every seat emptied to give the young actor – and his message – a standing ovation.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Every Brilliant Thing plays through April 1, 2018, at Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or go online.

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!