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.

Messages go out about the struggle within

By John Lyle Belden

“I don’t know what’s worse, trying to kill yourself or living with the fact that you tried to kill yourself.”

This lament sums up the situation for Claire, the young woman at the center of “Letters Sent,” the new drama by local writer Janice Hibbard in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company at the Indy Eleven Theatre.

Not every suicide comes with a note, but Claire (Lexy Weixel) wrote nine. She composed and sent them as snail-mail letters — bypassing the Internet for greater privacy — then went to her apartment bathroom and opened up her wrist. However, her mother, Florence (Kathryn Comer Paton), happened to discover her before it was too late.

The play begins with Claire cocooned in a bed in the attic of her mother’s house, just days after her discharge from the hospital. Adjusting to being not-dead is rough. We come to meet the people closest to her, including boyfriend/pseudo-brother (it’s complicated) Jack (Joe Barsanti), best friends Emma (Becky Lee Meacham) and Jane (Victoria Kortz), and her father, Robert (Doug Powers), who had moved to Florida after the divorce. Our story is set in Michigan, for a reason that soon becomes evident.

Claire’s mental progress is tracked through sessions with her therapist (Wendy Brown). Here we find that the letters were sent not only to the five people we meet, but also to four people Claire considered enemies — a final middle-finger to them on her way out, she says.

There does indeed seem to be progress, but the way isn’t easy, and when secrets held by those closest to Claire are uncovered, everything could come undone.

Weixel inhabits Claire perfectly, swinging from charming to childish to morose to wracked with guilt, constantly struggling with the messages from others as well as from within her head. Though the character, like the actor, is in her early 20s, Claire being at this life crossroads has regressed her into a sort of frustrated teenager. Still, she is relatable, someone you want to reach out to.

Paton, as a Mom who must maintain control as chaos terrifies her, is both Claire’s savior and a well-meaning obstacle to her recovery. Powers is the cool Dad, perhaps because he understands Claire’s struggle more than she knows. Barsanti’s Jack is a hot mess in his own way, and Kortz and Meacham are friends dealing with the desire to be supportive, but either too confident (Emma) or unsure (Jane) of exactly how.

The topics of mental illness and suicide seem to pop up quite often lately, even on stage. Just a couple of months ago, we had “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. One important lesson we get from both that play and this is that what we think will help won’t necessarily work — but given a chance, a spark from within can be what saves us. Will Claire find hers?

Directed by Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood, performances of “Letters Sent” run through March 24 at the Indy Eleven, a stage in the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For tickets and info, visit fatturtletheatre.com or indyfringe.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.

IndyFringe: ‘Canvas’

By John Lyle Belden

Standard disclaimer: I’ve known Casey Ross for years and love everything she does. So I can’t help but recommend this show, with a small caveat (see below).

“Canvas” is the third chapter of Ross’s trilogy that began with “Gallery” and continued with “Portraits” – both past Fringe shows. If you haven’t seen them, this play is still easy to follow, and a quick synopsis of the first two is in the program.

The story again focuses on two artists, best friends Jackson (Davey Pelsue) and Frank (Dave Ruark). In the past, free-spirit Jackson leaned on solid academic Frank, but now their situation is reversed as Jackson, a successful painter, cares for Frank, who has partial amnesia after an “accidental” drug overdose.

Once again, they struggle to define their relationship as each deeply loves the other, but the fact that one is straight and the other gay further complicates their feelings and actions. Their friends try to help, but have been burned by dysfunctional relationships with these two and can only do so much.

There is dark humor, raw emotion, and – my one caution – a frank examination of suicide. No easy answers are given, though this play does draw the trilogy to a conclusion.

Between Ross’s knack for sharp dialogue and a solid job by the actors, this play has earned its place as one of the hottest tickets at the Fringe. Get them if you can for performances Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25-26 ,at Theatre on the Square’s second stage.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.