BWW Review: EVERY BRILLIANT THING: #1 Adrianne Krstansky
Every Brilliant Thing
Written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe; Directed by Marianna Bassham; Scenic & Lighting Design, Eric Levenson; Costume Design, Amanda Ostrow Mason; Sound Design, Lee Schuna; Props Design, Abby Shenker; Production Stage Manager, Becca Freifeld; Assistant Stage Manager, Amanda Ostrow Mason
Featuring: Adrianne Krstansky
Performances through March 31 by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com
If you look up the adjective "brilliant" in a thesaurus, there are dozens of definitions, depending on its specific usage, but a couple of them jumped out at me as apt descriptions of Adrianne Krstansky in her solo performance in Every Brilliant Thing. Let's start with vivid, intense, and bold, as she takes command in the center ring, if you will (the Roberts Studio Theatre is configured with the audience seated on all four sides, with the stage in the middle), continuously on the move, making eye contact, and talking directly to us. Not only is there no fourth wall, there are no walls at all, as playwright Duncan Macmillan requires audience engagement as part and parcel of this uplifting, life-affirming show in its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts.
The life-affirming label is especially important as Every Brilliant Thing explores depression and the impact of suicide on a family. However, the play is far from depressing; in fact, its focus is on a list of all of life's wonderful things, many of them abstract, that make life worth living. When the Narrator's mother survives a suicide attempt, the then seven-year-old child starts the list to encourage her mother to find joy and reasons to live. Throughout the course of the narrative, the list grows exponentially, reflecting the child's maturing process, as well as a chronology of events, such as college, first love, and marriage, while weaving in the evolution of the family dynamics.
The Narrator enlists audience members (fear not, only the willing are conscripted) to read items from the list, as she calls out numbers: #1 ice cream, #2 water fights, #3 staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch tv, etc. Obviously, those are the thoughts of a young child, but they are still joy-inducing. Later entries, having to do with falling in love and being in a relationship, may resonate more with our adult selves, but the simplest ones are the best. #9 chocolate, #26 peeing in the sea and no one knows; and more: clean sheets, sunlight, dancing. I could go on, but you get the idea. Think of your own, but I'(M) Willing to bet it's on the list.
EBT is more than just a recitation of items on a list. Krstansky creates a vivid character and plays off the audience, requiring her to perform more than a little bit of improv. However, she seems ready for anything that is pitched at her. Five audience members are selected to play characters in the Narrator's life story, but Krstansky feeds them some lines and gently guides them to play along with her. At the performance I attended, they were all troupers, especially the woman who acted as Mrs. Patterson, a kindly school counselor with a sock puppet, and the young man (Nolan Pearson) who portrayed Sam, the first love, then husband of the Narrator. Perhaps most important is Krstansky's ability to engage everybody with her genuine warmth and create the feeling of community within the room. It is clear that the vibes go both ways and that she is fed and nurtured by the audience, too.
At times, the pace is a whirlwind of activity, such as the moment when Krstansky runs around trying to high-five as many people as possible, or when dance music is pumped up at high volume, necessitating the Narrator to roam the bleachers with a microphone in order to hear people reading off their list items. Macmillan builds in ebbs and flows, allowing time to meditate on the seriousness of the subject, before building to another period of laugh out loud recounting. First-time director Marianna Bassham has found a way to keep Krstansky on track, both with the scripted and spontaneous parts of the play, and their teamwork in the preparations is evident. Despite there being moments of joyful abandon and unexpected dialogue, the production is tight and never feels like it could go off the rails.
EBT calls for little in the way of design, but Lee Schuna (sound) makes an important contribution as music plays a key role in the Narrator's life. Eric Levenson (scenic and lighting), Amanda Ostrow Mason (costume), and Abby Shenker (props) complete the world of the play. However, the minimalist approach to these accoutrements is in keeping with what is truly important in this particular theatrical experience. The words on the list (and the feelings behind the words), that convey what really makes life worth living, that illustrate what one is willing to do for a loved one, and the discovery that the list has significance for the list-maker's life, as well. Every Brilliant Thing is a beautiful reminder that you may not be able to change a situation, but you have the power to change your reaction. I'm starting a list: #1 live theater.
[On the four Thursdays during the production's run, performances will be followed by a talkback series coordinated by National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Each will pair a doctor from McLean Hospital in Belmont with someone who has been touched personally by suicide.]
Photo credit: Maggie Hall Photography (Adrianne Krstansky)