No. 1: Ice Cream!

By Wendy Carson

First off, suicide, as well as the depressive hopelessness that can lead to it, are no laughing matter and these things should never be taken lightly. However, survivors dealing with the impact of the act, and trying to understand/heal afterwards all have different ways of doing so.

In “Every Brilliant Thing,” Ben Asaykwee brings us playwright Duncan Macmillan and comedian Jonny Donahoe’s story of a seven-year-old boy’s struggle to help his mom find some sort of joy in her life so she will continue living it.

While the show is not autobiographical, it is an amalgamation of numerous true stories of those who have lived through these situations, including Macmillan and Donahoe themselves.

Our Narrator (Asaykwee) tells the life story of the boy who, at seven, is taken to the hospital by his father because his mom “is sad” and “has done something stupid.” Determined to find a way to help, he begins to make a list of “Brilliant Things” that make one happy in order to show her there is a lot out there to live for. While he is aware that she has read at least the start of his list – she corrects his spelling – she doesn’t seem to understand its purpose, so his work on the list continues.

We are privy to his life story throughout: his teenage angst through her second “episode,” falling in love at college, marriage, separation, the inevitable funeral, and survival beyond it, all the while seeing the growth and development of the list.

Audience members are not just observers of the story, they are participants. Upon arriving, you will be given one or two numbered items on the list that you will shout out when they are added. A few audience members will also portray some characters required for the narrative, to the great delight of all. There is a surprising amount of laughter in this heartwarming production. There is also the added treat of ice cream after the show, per item #1 on the list.

A talk-back afterwards is available for anyone who feels the need to discuss or decompress as well (you still get ice cream).

Throughout the ups and downs of the boy’s journey, Asaykwee shows us the full emotional range of the character, as well as his impressive acting and improv skills. Recently open about his own mental struggles, he finds this a challenging and important role. Director Kevin Caraher is also familiar with stories of personal growth through trauma, having been in plays such as “Bill W.” and “Small Mouth Sounds.”

Of the three productions of this script I have seen, this is by far my favorite.

So, come out to not only watch the list grow throughout this story, but also feel free to take a Post-it afterwards and add your own Brilliant Thing to the list. Produced by Stage Door Productions, performances are through Sunday, June 26, at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indydistricttheatre.org.

IRT: Happiness is a long list

By Wendy Carson

Depression, suicide, and mental illness have all been highly stigmatized subjects. Only recently have we as a nation been broaching these topics, yet still refer to them in hushed tones.

In the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s staging of “Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, we are presented with a unique look at someone dealing with the above issues through personal accounts of his experiences.

This is the story of a Man (no name is given) whose mother’s first attempt at suicide is when he is 7 years old. To somehow make sense of things, and help her heal, he begins to make a list of things that are worth living for. No matter how hard he tries to get this across to her, she seems to not listen. After a while the list is abandoned in the pages of a favorite book and forgotten.

During his college years, he begins wooing a girl and inadvertently loans her the book containing the list. She delights in the idea and returns it to him with a few of her own additions. The two continue adding to the list and he continues to send its contents to his mother, but to no avail. Her suicidal tendencies overwhelm her no matter what.

Since this is not a fairy tale, nobody lives happily ever after. The man and his girlfriend marry, then separate. The abandoned list resurfaces, only about 1,000 items shy of one million. How many more Brilliant Things can they add?

The story overall is quite endearing. It’s never too dark or too syrupy, but very true to the realities of the world. What sets it apart is the manner in which it is presented.

Prior to the show, lone performer Marcus Truschinski hands out postcards and other scraps of paper to various members of the audience. Each has a word or phrase on it along with a number. When he mentions that number – an item on the list – during the show, the person holding the corresponding card must shout out the information for all to hear.

There is a small section of audience seating at the rear of the stage which patrons can choose. Of course, these people will be incorporated into the show, as the script requires various other people to interact with Truschinski in order to tell the story. However, in a stroke of misdirection, audience members from all over are actually used.

True to the show’s fringe-festival roots, with its audience interaction each performance is entirely unique. Add to this Truschinski’s amazing improv skills and you have an evening of theater that is uplifting, thought provoking, touching, and enriching throughout.

Make a note to add this experience to your own list. Performances are through Feb. 10 on the upperstage of the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy; call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.