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Theater Review: Every Brilliant Thing

Steve McDonagh as "The Narrator" in "Every Brilliant Thing"
Kat Mumma
Farmers Alley Theatre
Steve McDonagh as "The Narrator" in "Every Brilliant Thing"

Farmers Alley Theatre recently opened its one-person production of “Every Brilliant Thing.” WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

Before the show begins, actor Steve McDonagh circulates among the audience gathered for this in-the-round production of “Every Brilliant Thing.”

McDonagh announces to patrons that this evening will be about “Reasons to Live,” as he passes out numbered slips of paper, each presumably containing a reason. Then, he instructs each person lip to shout out the words written on the paper when their number is called during the show.

This is just one of the ways in which McDonagh, as the Narrator, engages the involvement and sympathies of his audience in the story he tells.

The ensuing 70 minutes are a remarkable journey of discoveries, surprises, and revelations about savoring the moments of joy that can keep us upright, even when we face the bleak landscapes that life has to offer.

The story of the character McDonagh portrays in the first-person begins at age seven. The boy must deal with his mother’s first attempt at taking her own life. To provide her with reasons for living, he begins a list of those things, starting with ice cream. It later grows into a more mature, life-long catalogue that includes a first kiss, - in fact, anything, no matter how small, that he deems worth living for.

Although the play deals with the serious subject of suicide, McDonagh’s touch is light, anything but morbid, and never lapses into self-pity, despite the obstacles of an emotionally distant father and a depressed mother, whose behavior and moods are at best unpredictable.

McDonagh is a master storyteller who fills this chronologically told coming-of-age tale with plenty of laughter, celebration, and self-deprecating moments about his own character, as well as about audience members called on to act out the parts of those who populate his life.

Some of the funniest and most touching scenes are generated by McDonagh’s interaction with his grade school counsellor, who speaks soothing words to him through a sock puppet; a college professor of German literature; his first girlfriend; and his father, called upon for a speech at the grown boy’s wedding.

In the Thursday evening invited preview I witnessed, these cameos were delivered by willing audience members who brought life and feeling to their improvised roles.

As McDonagh recounts his character’s growth from boy to man, and the growth of his list to hundreds-of-thousands of items, he pumps energy and humor into the events surrounding life’s passages, such as education, courtship, and marriage.

His enthusiasm for musical selections from his withdrawn father’s collection of vinyl records becomes more pronounced, in fact, purposefully over the top. His demeanor and gestures become more animated and exaggerated. He speaks with more speed, volume, and greater range in pitch.

After collapsing on the floor after a frantic marathon of high fives to the entire audience, McDonagh shifts gears to provide a glimpse into the flip side of his character’s manic existence.

He gathers himself slowly, catching his breath, as he tells us of a failed marriage and how his wife urged him to seek help. He does. He then shares his fear that the life-threatening depression that plagued his mother has been visited upon him.

Then we understand the startling truth that McDonagh’s character seems to have known early on. The long list that he created to save his mother was also meant to protect him and cushion the ride through the abrupt series of ups and downs he acts out on the Farmers Alley stage.

At this point, I found myself staring down at the numbered slip of paper McDonagh had placed in my hand before the show began. It referenced item number six on the list: “Rollercoasters.”

McDonagh says toward the evening’s end, “If you get to the end of a long life without being crushingly depressed, you haven’t been paying attention.” In doing so, he underscores the relevance and importance of the show’s purpose - “Reasons to Live” - for everyone attending.

In closing, I’d like to point out the following content advisory on the Farmers Alley website for “Every Brilliant Thing”: “Call or text 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.”

Gordon Bolar was WMUK's General Manager from 2011 to 2016. He joined the station in 2006 as Development Director. After retiring as General Manager, Gordon has continued to review theater for WMUK.