TAYLORSVILLE — Entering the beautiful and modern Studio 5400 black box theatre at the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center, audience members are greeted by the show’s star, Brian Pilling, who plays the Narrator in Wasatch Theatre Company’s Every Brilliant Thing (written by Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe). The informal greeting lends a sense of casual warmth to the production as Pilling hands out slips of paper and asks audience members if they would be willing to read when called upon. With a smattering of pleasantries, Pilling then invites each individual and group to cross the stage to a table sitting against an upstage wall adorned with a smattering of colorful sticky notes, where they can write a word (or three) on a note and add it to the wall. This interaction feels not unlike the start of a Sunday school lesson (though not in a bad way) and immediately encourages the audience to interact with each other as they find their way back from the stage to choose a seat.
The set decoration is sparse and focuses on a pale blue recliner (circa 1980-something) flanked by a small table topped with a record player and supported by stacks of vinyl records and books, while a mishmash of jazz, big band swing, and a little Trisha Yearwood for good measure (a nod to Pilling’s own favorite artist, as noted in his bio) is piped through the house speakers.
Every Brilliant Thing follows the story of a boy who must grapple with his mother’s suicide attempts and depressive episodes. At the age of 7, he begins to make a list of “every brilliant thing” in hopes of inspiring his mother to find happiness and a will to continue living. The list encompasses joys as simple as “ice cream” and as complex as “The feeling of calm which follows the realization that although you may be in a regrettable situation, there’s nothing you can do about it.” The list grows as the boy does and expands and accompanies him on his own life journeys of discovery, love, sadness, loss and renewal.
Knowing I was heading into a one-person play about suicidal ideation, I had some apprehension about a potentially slow and bleak evening. All such misgivings were dispelled almost immediately, not only by Pilling’s affable greeting, but also as he (as the Narrator) begins to tell the story, drawing the audience one by one into the almost magical incandescence of both story and storyteller.
This one-person play transforms into an ensemble of audience participation as Pilling brings audience members one at a time onto the stage (or in some instances comes into the house and sits next to them) to share a scene or two with him, taking on the roles of actor and director simultaneously, playing his part while coaxing reciprocation from the newly cast and unsuspecting audience member. This stage convention is made plausible and compelling by the interplay of a clever script and a skilled actor that together manage to entice a man in the audience to willingly take off his shoe and use his own sock as a puppet (twice), and a woman to propose marriage on bended knee.
Pilling manages these interactions well, but at times I wanted to see him lean in even more to the improv with the audience member—less directing and more “yes, and”—trusting the seeds of brilliance he had planted in his new co-star and seeing where it would go for just a little bit longer before reigning it back in. Nevertheless, what could have been an awkward and kitschy bout of interactive theatre was instead transformed into sincere interaction, sometimes playful, sometimes profound, but always poignant.
Other than a couple of moments where the lighting doesn’t follow Pilling into the audience, making it hard to see and follow the scene, the lighting sets the tone and gently guides the interplay and movement between stage and house, while the music weaves the threads of the story together the same way Pilling weaves his audience into the story.
Jim Martin, the production’s director, demures in his biography that he simply needed to get out of Pilling’s way. Though this may be true, Martin’s deft staging and skillful use of the space is apparent. And surely the show’s pacing benefits Martin’s pacing; it is unhurried without dragging and takes abrupt and intentional moments of silence where the entire room seems to hold its breath until the next beat falls. As the lights dimmed on the final tableau, I was suddenly unsure of how long I had been sitting there, and I was left wanting a little bit more time in this world. Though as I sat with the brilliant things the production left floating around inside me, and walked out into the still setting sun, I realized that the show’s 60-minute run is probably just right.
The interconnected topics of mental health and suicidality are not easy to broach. But addressing them is necessary in our society where they touch everyone’s life to a lesser or greater degree. Wasatch Theatre Company’s Every Brilliant Thing addresses them with sincerity, grace, honesty and great deal more humor than one might expect. I think this is because of, not despite the reality that sadness is a significant part of this human experience. As the narrator says “If you get to the end of a really long life without ever once feeling crushingly depressed, you’re probably not paying attention.”
Every Brilliant Thing is well worth audience’s time, and readers should bring their friends and family, talk about the show and their own experiences with these topics, because, as the Narrator says, “I now realize how important it is to talk about things that are hard to talk about.”