Tipping Point brings brilliance to ‘Every Brilliant Thing’
NORTHVILLE, Mich. – What if it was your job to convince someone that life is worth living? How would you begin? That’s the premise of the joyful, heart-rending, profoundly human play, Every Brilliant Thing, now playing at Tipping Point Theatre. It is the story of a child who takes on the task of listing the brilliant things that bring happiness to daily existence. As he adds items to the list, he leaves them in strategic places for his suicidal mother to find – administered, he hopes, like restorative teaspoonfuls of joy.
If the topic of growing up in the dark shadow of depression strikes you as inappropriate for comedy, consider society’s reluctance to engage in open and frank discussions about mental health when it manifests in our own families. That’s inappropriate. This production performs a community service by throwing a whoopee cushion under the tight-ass, destructive cultural taboos that keep families from getting help. In Every Brilliant Thing, the child’s pain is not dwelt on, but it is achingly real. So are his sources of happiness – ranging from ice cream to Ray Charles’ exotic vocals. And by following this child’s experiences as he moves into adulthood, the play exposes the compounded danger of dealing with depression as if it were illegal. Rather than treating it as we would any other illness, and considering depression in the context of all the family members, this play shows how depression becomes a source of anxiety and misplaced guilt for them all.
The script by Duncan Macmillan was written with input by Jonny Donahoe, the stand-up comedian who developed the character for its original production at Britain’s Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013. No doubt Donahoe’s input explains the authentic, self-effacing nature of the humor found in this script – which provokes laughter not because it is clever or shocking, but because its insights are true and all too familiar.
Every Brilliant Thing is a one-hander that relies on a bit of improv and audience interaction to fill in the supporting parts. Seats are arranged in-the-round with a bare set and few props. The lights are up full as people walk into the theatre, and some are approached by the lead actor, who asks them to read from a sheet of paper when called on. These papers contain numbered items from the list of “brilliant things” the child is composing – a list he hopes will save his mother’s life.
Once the last piece of paper is assigned, the lights stay up and the show begins. When the actor calls out a number from his list of personal joys, an audience member calls it out. As needed, the actor invites a few members of the audience to fill in various roles – the veterinarian who puts down his beloved dog, a school counselor and her sock puppet, his dad, the woman he falls in love with – but since he tells the volunteers exactly what to do, it all unfolds in a seamless way. The effect is quite charming – everyone has a stake in this child’s success – and the device ensures that no two performances are the same.
Tipping Point Theatre embraces and expands on this premise by offering two versions of the show – alternating performances by Katherine Banks and by James R. Kuhl, Tipping Point’s producing artistic director. We caught a performance by Kuhl and it was – well – brilliant. There is unspeakable satisfaction in watching this immersive performance. Kuhl captures the bewildered hopefulness of the child, the confused angst of the teenager, the dancing-to-James-Brown ecstasy of the optimistic young lover, and the weary struggle of the untreated adult who has depleted his own source of happiness and is reluctant to seek professional help. By the time the play nears its conclusion, the audience is fully invested in the welfare of that grown-up child. This transformation of a group of strangers into a community intent on saving a troubled soul is a minor miracle for any theatrical endeavor – and makes for a rich and precious experience.
We asked the show’s director, Angie Kane Ferrante, what it was like working with two different actors on one script. “It’s awesome,” she replied. “The most difficult part is splitting one rehearsal time with two people. It’s literally cutting our time in half. Otherwise, we have two brilliant people bringing their own experiences into the room and to the role. It creates opportunity. It creates conversation. It creates new perspective. Katie is joyful, honest, and smart. James is charming, funny, and truthful. They are both worth seeing tell this amazing story.”
If there is another “character” in this play, it’s the sound design by Sonja Marquis. We learn how the father’s extensive collection of vinyl LPs informed the boy’s childhood – from moody sax to vibrant stylings by Ella Fitzgerald. These jazz/blues classics are sampled throughout the show to punctuate dimensionalize the narrative.
Much has been written in recent years about the nature of depression; it is hard to believe that people still avoid treatment, or talking about it, because of a perceived stigma attached to mental illness. Much to their credit, Tipping Point Theatre has partnered with St. Mary Mercy Livonia to facilitate post-show discussions in which behavioral health experts address topics raised in this show, including treatment options for those battling suicidal tendencies.
Every Brilliant Thing covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes and is essentially optimistic; after all, it articulates the many reasons to pursue those repeated journeys around the sun. Works of art such as this one – which position mental illness on the spectrum of mortal woes that are regrettable but that merit and require treatment – are to be lauded. As family members, we may not be able to “fix” those we love, any more than we can mend their broken bones or cure their cancer. But we can acknowledge their pain openly and honestly and help them get professional treatment. We can bring them evidence of our love, continuously, just as we would do to ease any form of suffering.
There are many reasons to see this Tipping Point Theatre production – the laughs, the relevance of the message, the fine acting. If for no other reason, take a friend or loved one to be reminded of the innumerable brilliant things that grace our lives. This play will help you see them. And here’s the trick – they’re everywhere.