Ice cream. Water fights. Staying up past your bedtime to watch TV.
These are the first three reasons that a little girl (Adrianne Krstansky) gives her mother to stay alive after her first suicide attempt in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Every Brilliant Thing. The show tracks the unnamed girl as she grows into a teenager, a college student, and finally an adult. With a candid look at suicide, the stigma surrounding it, and the depression that may accompany it, Every Brilliant Thing captures the viewer’s attention using only the relatability and resilience of the human spirit that Krstansky so incredibly channels.
It requires no set, only chairs arranged in a square looking down at the floorspace where Krstansky spends most of her time throughout the production—although she was not averse to running behind the rows of chairs filled with audience members watching her every move. They had to be paying attention, otherwise they might miss their cues.
As people file into the theater, they’re handed small slips of construction paper cut out into stars, post-it notes, and old scraps of paper. On each of them is a number and a short phrase. Throughout the production, Krstansky will call out a number and the audience member with the corresponding card reads aloud.
- When someone lends you books
- Planning a declaration of love
The lists grow as the narrator does, as she calls on the people closest to her to help her understand and cope with the mental illness affecting her mother and ultimately herself. She asks her father, the older gentleman with glasses and a British accent sitting in the second row; her school counselor, the second British audience member, who enthusiastically accepts her role to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if she were actually a counselor; and finally her boyfriend, the younger guy sitting in the front row.
It seems intimidating. Some of the audience is forced to completely improvise—when the narrator asks the counselor if she was happy as a little girl, she gives her no cue as to what she’s supposed to say. At first it seems dangerous. How can they expect a random person to come up with a thoughtful answer on such short notice?
Perhaps that’s the point. Maybe we’re supposed to realize that anyone could ask us heavy questions and we might have to come up with something sensitive and supportive on the spot. Even if you aren’t the person under pressure at the theater, you’re thinking about what you would say if that were you. For many people seeing Every Brilliant Thing, sitting in that theater might be the first time they ever considered their answers to these difficult questions.
No one would have blamed the father and the counselor and the boyfriend if they couldn’t come up with good answers. I didn’t expect anything outstanding—they were just people expecting to see a play, after all. But they answered with enthusiasm, eloquence, and insight that was inspiring to see—so much so that it elicited applause from the rest of the crowd.
“We celebrate you,” director Marianna Bassham said of the people chosen to improvise. “We clap for you, we love you, and we can’t believe you just did that. It’s so great.”
What might be the most powerful piece of the play is its relatability—sitting in the chairs listening to someone list all of the things that they love and realizing you love all of the same things, no matter how general or specific it may get, is something that doesn’t happen often.
- Cycling downhill
- Being cooked for
- Watching someone watch your favorite film
“That familiarity is really great to ground the play,” Bassham said.
Every Brilliant Thing was written by British playwright Duncan MacMillan and was first produced in 2013 at the Ludlow Fringe Festival. It’s running in Boston from March 2 to March 31, in the round in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
After every Thursday evening performance, there is a panel featuring a doctor from the McLean Hospital and one representative from Massachusetts National Alliance on Mental Illness’s In Our Own Voice Program. All speakers from that program are individuals who have experienced mental illness, are in recovery, and are willing to share their stories.
“It’s really good to have an actual conversation with somebody about that stuff, because it’s hard,” Bassham said. “I think one of the themes of the play is like ‘We can talk about this. We can all just be in a room and have a conversation, and we will all take care of each other.’”
Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor