Last week was National Suicide Prevention Week, and the U-M Depression Center teamed up with the Arthur Miller Theatre to bring Duncan Macmillan’s play Every Brilliant Thing to campus, hoping to encourage dialogue and raise awareness of this sensitive topic. The play, which debuted on campus last Tuesday night, lasted sixty minutes and was followed by an open discussion about depression and suicide facilitated by University personnel specializing in the field.
Every Brilliant Thing, first performed at the Edinburgh festival in 2014 to enormous success, tackles depression through the eyes of the son of a suicidal woman who attempts to take her life, resulting in The List — a catalog her son creates of “every brilliant thing in the world” in the hopes of reigniting his mother’s will to live. The play is an interactive one-man show, driven by the charismatic Jonny Donahoe, whose everyman persona makes for a charming and relatable character. His emotions are palpable; his naive innocence as a six-year-old boy is sincere and contagious, his dark moods quiet the audience, and, as an added bonus, he is unexpectedly and hilariously funny, resulting in a tremendous uproar from his audience. Donahoe involves the audience throughout the play, plucking unsuspecting viewers to play little roles, such as the stoic father, the kind veterinarian, and his future wife Sam.
The interactive nature of the play ensures that every performance is unique and individualized; the ad libbed performances turn an otherwise distant audience into active agents — they become involved, invested in the story in a way that motion pictures and even other traditional plays cannot achieve.
Depression affects 3.3 million Americans annually and the play is highly cognizant of this. The interactive nature of the play ensures that every performance is unique and individualized; the ad libbed performances turn an otherwise distant audience into active agents — they become involved, invested in the story in a way that motion pictures and even other traditional plays cannot achieve. This connection is especially deep due to the characters Donahoe has them play, as the kind veterinarian asked to euthanize the six-year-old narrator’s favorite dog or the stoic father giving a wedding toast. The capstone of the performance, however, is the list itself. From the childishly simple color yellow to falling in love, the list is a powerful reminder of the joys of life; no matter their magnitude, when reading the list the narrator’s persona brightens, his smile widens and this joy is contagious. The astounding million ‘brilliant things’ that the list amasses by the end of the hour long play serves as a reminder of all the possibilities in the world; there are uncountable wonderful things to be encountered, amazing experiences, delightful people, joys both little and large that ultimately accumulate in the idea that life is amazing when you stop and take stock, really take stock, of all the intricate happenings around you.
For a topic as emotionally charged as depression, the Depression Center chose a play that manages to navigate the sensitive subject with insightful commentary and elegance. The play never comes off as overtly didactical or sententious, but merely an exploration of one man’s experience with depression and how he coped and came to terms with it. “It’s [Every Brilliant Thing] the least cool piece of theatre ever, in some ways,” Macmillan described in an interview once. “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it.” Macmillan’s ‘uncool’ sentiment combined with Donahoe’s animated performance makes Every Brilliant Thing a salient and engaging work that operates as the ideal vehicle to drive discussion on suicide and mental health here on campus.