One-Man Show Casts 'Brilliant' Light On Realities Of Suicide, Depression The off-Broadway play Every Brilliant Thing tackles its dark subject through audience participation and comedy. Both critics and audience members have described it as incredibly moving.

One-Man Show Casts 'Brilliant' Light On Realities Of Suicide, Depression

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Dying can of course be an uncomfortable topic - suicide, depression, these things don't necessarily say fun night at the theater, especially when there's the awkwardness of audience participation thrown in. But Jeff Lunden was pleasantly surprised when he went to a show off-Broadway called, "Every Brilliant Thing" And he's not alone in that opinion.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Ben Brantley would not have seen "Every Brilliant Thing" if he didn't have to.

BEN BRANTLEY: Normally, I loathe that kind of thing.

LUNDEN: Brantley is chief drama critic for The New York Times.

BRANTLEY: But I've never seen a production of that nature that makes you feel so comfortable from the very beginning. It walks such a fine line between overly sentimental and overly bleak, but I think it gets the balance just right.

LUNDEN: Part of what makes that balance work is stand-up comic Jonny Donahoe.


JONNY DONAHOE: Hello, welcome to the show. This is for you.

LUNDEN: He spends 20 minutes before each performance walking through the audience handing out small slips of paper and chatting.

DONAHOE: Now, when I read out these numbers in this order 992, 993, 994, 995 - can you just read out what it says to me?

LUNDEN: Those slips of paper are the brilliant, life-affirming things his character thinks of to help cheer up his suicidal mother. As Donahoe walks around and talks to people, he says he also gets a sense of who might be willing to be brought on stage and who might not.

DONAHOE: That whole first 20 minutes when I talk to the audience before the show starts, that's the casting process. And hopefully I'll sort of create a little relationship with you and there are people who feel very uncomfortable doing it - and I can see that and that's absolutely fine - there's no obligation for them to do anything they don't want to do. They're some people who are incredibly keen - too keen and I've got to avoid them as well (laughter).

LUNDEN: And then, the show begins. Within 10 seconds, the audience is a part of it.


DONAHOE: The list began after her first attempt. The list of everything that was brilliant about the world. Everything that was worth living for. Number one...


DONAHOE: Number two?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Water lights.

DONAHOE: Water fights.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Water fights.

DONAHOE: What is a water light?


LUNDEN: "Every Brilliant Thing" began as a short story by Duncan Macmillan who adapted it with director George Perrin along with Donahoe. Macmillan says they tried various approaches with the material but decided upon a setting where the audience faces each other and has to participate.

DUNCAN MACMILLAN: It felt like when suicidal, depression or suicide was appearing in theater or in film or in TV, it was oversimplified, it was glamorized to some extent, it was fetishized or it was stigmatized. There didn't seem to be any voices sort of talking about the complex realities of it.

LUNDEN: Still, Jonny Donahoe says he tries to bring a light touch.

DONAHOE: I think that's just the best way you can deal with it not just in a show but as a human being. I mean, you are going to - whoever you are - at some point, experience mental health issues, whether that is because you suffer from them yourself or your partner does or your parents. But it's too common for it to pass you by.


DONAHOE: If you live a long life and you get to the end of it without ever once feeling crushingly depressed, then you probably haven't been paying attention.


LUNDEN: Donahoe doesn't just get audience members to read slips of paper during the hour-long show. He finds people to play a veterinarian, a school counselor, his father and his romantic partner, Sam.


DONAHOE: I kept on going and I turn around and there she was on one knee.


DONAHOE: She held out both her hands and I took them and she said to me...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Will you marry me?

DONAHOE: And I said yes, let's kiss later.


LUNDEN: Playwright Duncan Macmillan says it's a very inclusive process.

MACMILLAN: Jonny says he always just tries to cast the most lovable person in the room as Sam and sometimes he feels like the person he meets in the first 20 minutes who's the most lovable is a woman and sometimes it's a man. And we got very excited by that. And we got excited by having mixed-race relationships and different age gaps and all sorts of things.

LUNDEN: On a recent Friday evening, Sam was played by Brittany Burke, a college freshman.

BRITTANY BURKE: I loved it, it was incredible. It made me think more than anything I've seen in a long time. And I really appreciated that.

LUNDEN: And Keith Darcy, who lectures about business ethics, found himself toasting the couple as the groom's father.


DONAHOE: Say what's in your heart, Dad.


KEITH DARCY: These two kids have had an incredible relationship.

LUNDEN: After the show, Darcy told me his own mother committed suicide.


DARCY: While I could feel the humor of it, I could also feel the pain of it. And I was deeply touched by it.

LUNDEN: And that's what makes the play so powerful says New York Times critic Ben Brantley.

BRANTLEY: I was incredibly moved. And it was a little embarrassing - that was the only way in which I felt uncomfortable - and the house lights never go down. So of course you're totally exposed to everyone else in the audience, and there I am trying to keep a poker face and I have tears running down my face, but I'm not ashamed of them (laughter).

LUNDEN: I cried, too. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


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