BWW Review: EVERY BRILLIANT THING is Memorable Theatre
EVERY BRILLIANT THING at the innovative Blue Barn Theatre on 10th Street in Omaha is not what you would expect in a play. You don't tuck your ankles under your seat, fold your hands, and watch. You experience. Under the lead of a lone superb actor, Hughston Walkinshaw, you interact with his fictional character beginning with his boyhood through his adulthood struggle with a suicidal mother.
Written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, this one hour, one act production directed by Susan Clement-Toberer focuses on the serious subject of suicide. It adds humor, so it's fun, but there is always the underlying current of sadness. Death and its resulting pain for loved ones make for the "saddest happiest" conversation of all.
Walkinshaw begins by pulling a volunteer from the audience and requesting his participation in a skit involving taking his dog, Sherlock Bones, to the vet to have him euthanized. This was the first encounter with death for the main character's 7-year-old self. This bit dredged up my own memories of taking my cat to the vet to have him put down. It hurt then and this elicited fresh hurt. Maybe this set the tone for me, because for the rest of the play, I was moody and sad even while the audience chuckled and laughed throughout.
Don't get me wrong. There were lots of funny parts! I especially related to the humor involving music. Walkinshaw told us that they kept the piano in the kitchen where it was warm and sang their favorite songs around it. He sang some of those songs for us with two audience members holding the keyboard while slowly moving in a circle. He reinvented the melody and phrasing of a well-known song with a hilarious effect. He used records to intimate his father's mood...If it sounded like instruments being thrown down the stairs, don't knock at his door!
Along with music, books play an important part in the story. Walkinshaw tells of meeting Sam in the library and exchanging books with her. There's more inside the books than he realizes. In college, he reads Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther," discovering negative social contagion brought about by its words. Words are powerful. They can bring you down.
Maybe words can also bring you up. Walkinshaw tries to encourage his depressed, hopeless mother with a list of brilliant things. He includes happy thoughts like "ice cream," but finds that most things on his list are not material things. As a young boy, he follows his mother speaking words from his list to her in a louder and louder voice. He sticks yellow "post its" around the house, and they are returned to him in a pile. His mother always returns his lists, neatly folded, as if dismissing his reasons to be alive.
We should all keep our own list of brilliant things. It's a form of "counting our blessings." Everyone can fill out a lengthy list of blessings...wheat fields, a kitten playing with a string, the ability to read. The list won't erase sadness, but it will provide balance and maybe even hope.
What made this experience at the Blue Barn even more memorable is its magical setting. Prior to the beginning of the show, I was sitting on the riser staring out across a lobby into the outdoors. There was a single tree with a white light shining on it, almost as if it symbolized a tree of life within my view just out of reach. The eclectic vintage light fixtures hanging from the ceiling seemed to represent our differences. We all have our own shape and color, but we are hanging in there together providing light. We all have a part to play. When the play commenced, the huge double doors closed revealing chalkboards scribbled with some persons' brilliant things, such as "being tall" or "theatre."
Music and words have power. But as Walkinshaw points out, there are many well-known beloved musicians who kill themselves. There are many famous writers who inexplicably end their lives. We must be careful with words. Media has rules to follow in reporting a suicide, such as "don't give the technical details," or "don't give the reason for death." We can learn by talking together.
The Blue Barn is hosting additional events focused on suicide: on September 30 "Talk Saves Lives" partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and on October 8, "Suicide Prevention, Response, and Support." A reported 41,000 persons in the US die each year because of taking their own lives. One of those was my 16-year-old nephew. One of those was my friend. It touches each of us.