The narrator stands in the middle of the room. There is no set, just a woman, speaking to the audience. She gathers props from those seated around her. Just a few minutes into the play, she holds someone's coat gingerly, for it represents the dog she just saw put to sleep, Sherlock Bones (the name can change from performance to performance). Playing a seven-year-old, at the time, the narrator says, "And he became lighter. Or heavier, I'm not sure. But different."
This is Every Brilliant Thing, a play that City Paper has dubbed "the funniest play about suicide you'll ever see." We wrote about the play last year, when it came as part of Spoleto Festival USA. This year, the play, written by Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe, is produced by Threshold Repertory Theatre as part of Piccolo Spoleto.
Threshold Rep managing director Darryl LaPlante admits that he and artistic director Jay Danner chose this Piccolo play in a haze — entirely enchanted by the concept when they first stumbled upon the script, and entirely unaware that Every Brilliant Thing had traveled to Charleston just the year before. "We did consider that we were doing it too close," says LaPlante of Threshold's production. But the story, and the treatment Threshold planned for it, was too good to give up.
Unlike the original, performed (rather brilliantly if we do say so ourselves) by Donahoe, Threshold's Every Brilliant Thing features a female, Amelia Sciandra, in the role of the narrator. And rather than in Britain, this version of the play will also be set in America, with specific references to Charleston. While these differences will give audiences a new take on the play, the big, underlying themes — you know, life, death, and the listing of happiness — remain.
The premise is simple: the narrator's first run-in with death, with Sherlock Bones, is not her last. Her mother is depressed and attempts to kill herself multiple times throughout the narrator's life. So, the young girl, then, later, the young woman, and even later, adult, makes a list of every brilliant thing there is in the world. Reasons to live, if you will.
The list starts as any child's would — with 1. Ice cream. 2. Water fights. 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV. You get the idea. The narrator wants to get to 100 brilliant things, a reasonable number of things worth living for, at least according to a child.
The play is funny, in part, because it is interactive. That list of brilliant things isn't simply recited by the narrator — it's shouted, whispered, and spoken by audience members, who receive slips of paper when they first enter the theater. "That's one of my favorite parts," says LaPlante of the show's interactive component. "It's like, 'Oh how fun, I get a slip of paper.'"
The fact that the word fun can be used to describe a play about depression and suicide speaks to the deftness in which Every Brilliant Thing is written. And of course, in the way in which it's performed. Danner has full confidence in Sciandra, who was his first choice for the role — even though she now resides in North Carolina. And yes, that does mean rehearsals were tough — they were done remotely, via Facetime.
"She immediately loved the script," says Danner. "It's really a collab, not your typical director/actor dynamic." Sciandra went to grad school in England where she earned her MFA in acting, and she's even directed a production for the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Needless to say, she's familiar with the British sense of humor the show requires, the kind that pokes fun at life's most dire moments.
You can guess how the play ends, and you'd probably be right no matter what, because the show is about both the light and the heavy parts of life; it is impossible to separate one from the other.
As the narrator says, in a moment in which her list feels like it can't grow any longer (spoiler: it always can), "If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven't been paying attention."