Review: ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at Studio Theatre

When Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe planned to tackle the subject of depression, they decided to avoid more familiar approaches: plays about self-destructive superstars who are too far removed from normalcy to inhale the same air mere mortals breathe; or plays about dysfunctional families that trap ordinary people in a maze of sentimentality to the point where they cannot survive as individuals.

Alexander Strain in 'Every Brilliant Thing' at Studio Theatre. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Alexander Strain in ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at Studio Theatre. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Instead, Macmillan and Donahoe chose untried ground: to write with humor, using stand-up comedy and audience participation to keep their serious work bright and entertaining, informative and fun.

The current Studio Showroom production, which was previously performed at the Olney Theatre Center, stars Alexander Strain as the narrator of the play. The story he tells is the play’s plot. A young boy, age seven, is picked up from school one day and told almost nothing by his father, except that what has happened involves his mother. They drive to a hospital together.

At that point, the boy starts keeping a list of reasons to live: Reason Number One: Ice Cream. The reasons keep growing, through the boy’s younger years into his teenage years. The second time his mother tries to end her life, the boy is ten years older and much angrier than he was the first time. He heard an “absolute deafening silence” and couldn’t sleep.

His list keeps growing. When it reaches 1,000 reasons to live, he mails it to his mother.  The young man goes off to college, where he is shy. He skips lectures, but in one class he is drawn to, the professor is teaching the Victorian novel, specifically the famous romantic novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. During this time, the young man grows used to his mother’s “ups and downs.” He reveals the astonishing and tremendously sad fact that he was scared by happiness because it “was usually followed by…you know.” The fact that the narrator cannot bear to say the word “depression” speaks volumes.

Strain is a brilliant choice for this role. He remains emotionally evenly balanced throughout the play. He comes across as an immensely friendly, outgoing, bubbly fellow who virtually dances through the role of a child growing into a man, meeting a woman in the library at college, and getting married. He moves easily around the Milton Theater, which has been transformed into a more informal space with small tables and chairs. He interacts with the audience, asking them to play certain roles in the narration of his story. He asks them to contribute to his growing list. He is the living personification of the fact that, even though there are people who are too miserable to live in the world, he knows that it all gets better and why. It’s all there on his list.

Alexander Strain and an audience member in 'Every Brilliant Thing' at Studio Theatre. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Alexander Strain and an audience member in ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at Studio Theatre. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Director Jason Loewith acknowledges the split between the somber message of the play and its upbeat delivery. He keeps Strain’s basic pace very fast, so that when there is total silence or an inability to speak (as in Strain’s inability to say the word “depression”) it hits home with tremendous force.

Scenic designer Paige Hathaway uses a plain black curtain at the back of the stage and covers its floor with colorful, overlapping Persian carpets. The small tables that curve around the stage become part of the show. After the first row, the tables are on risers to create a small auditorium. The ceiling is hung with various types of lamps, from chandeliers to Tiffany lamps (lighting by Max Doolittle). Sound designers Ryan Gravett and Jane Behre have created a rich and varied soundtrack, including favorites by Satchmo, Ray Charles, Lou Reed, and others, all of whom are important to the plot. Costume designer Debra Kim Sivigny dresses Strain in a plain shirt and slacks.

Ironically, by not using a serious tone to touch on a very serious subject, Macmillan and Donahoe are able to broach honestly one of the most controversial subjects in modern America without sounding maudlin or preachy. Their writing and Strain’s acting create an audience that feels very much like the group Macmillan and Donahoe hoped for: a resilient community of people who share the same concerns, not only for the person who is in pain but for the family and friends who live around that suffering person.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

Every Brilliant Thing plays through July 7, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.