Afternoon performances of Rogue Theater Company production continue through Saturday, Dec. 10, at Grizzly Peak Winery
By Jim Flint for Ashland.news
Depression and suicide, unwieldy topics themselves, paired with humor might sound like an unlikely, even uneasy combination, but the play “Every Brilliant Thing” handles it quite successfully. The Rogue Theater Company production runs through Dec. 10 at Grizzly Peak Winery.
With warmth and sensitivity — no less due to David Kelly’s engaging performance as Narrator in this one-person show than due to the empathy of English playwright Duncan Macmillan, who first told the tale in a short story, and the wit of Irish comedian Jonny Donahoe, who co-wrote the play with Macmillan — “Every Brilliant Thing” navigates the troubled waters of its subject matter with insight and hope.
The play tells the story of a man who, from the age of 7, strives to cope with his mother’s depression and suicide attempts by creating a list of everything that makes life worth living. Over time, he continues to add to the list of those “brilliant things,” which he shares with his mother when she is feeling down. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t.
In most plays, the audience’s role is passive. The actors on stage do all the work. The audience feels, thinks, and responds. But for them there is no performance.
In this production, the actor breaks the fourth wall frequently, asking for a level of audience participation that many theatergoers may have never experienced before. In last Friday’s opening day performance, the audience responded enthusiastically and seemed to relish the experience.
Even before RTC Artistic Director Jessica Sage’s curtain speech, Kelly, a 28-season Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran actor, mixed and mingled with the audience, passing out slips of paper, numbered, each with a line of text.
The texts are all items on the Narrator’s list of brilliant things, such as No. 1, ice cream; No. 2, water fights; No. 25, wearing a cape; No. 314, the way Ray Charles sings the word “You”; No. 319, laughing so hard you shoot milk out of your nose; and No. 823, skinny dipping.
During the play, from time to time, the Narrator will call out a number on his list, and an audience member will respond.
A few audience members are drafted to take on roles as secondary characters, such as school counselor Mrs. Patterson, Dad, and Veterinarian. Sometimes they are fed lines, other times they just react.
It might seem risky asking attendees to participate in even a small way, but the success of the play does not rise or fall on those contributions. In fact, those efforts, whether adept or halting, help bring the audience and actor together in an atmosphere of shared compassion and sense of community.
As the Narrator grows older, goes to college and later gets married, he continues to add to the list while trying to understand his mother and why she was so unhappy. All the while, he tries coping with his own insecurities, addresses his anger, and seeks his own happiness.
A lot of great 20th century musicians are mentioned in the play. Some of their music is heard as well, serving the story line.
Performed in the round, it is a spare production with an intentionally threadbare set. At Grizzly Peak, there was a palpable sense of intimacy as the character shared his story.
The play reminds us that seeking out the joys of life, especially those involving other people, can help us deal with the inevitable moments of fear, anxiety, anger or loneliness.
As the play’s director, Caroline Shaffer, says in her playbill notes, “… As we sit around a metaphorical campfire and listen to music and tell this story together, we encourage each other to see the little joys, count our blessings, and make connections. And that very simple act helps us experience life more richly and fully.”
The play ends with the Narrator revealing that the number of brilliant things on the list eventually reached a million.
We would add one more “brilliant” thing to the list: attending this Rogue Theater Company play. Happily, RTC continues to experience dramatic growth and continues to surprise theatergoers with gems like “Every Brilliant Thing.”
Kelly begins greeting audience members and passing out lines at 1:30 p.m. Hour-long performances begin at 2 p.m.
Shows continue today, Dec. 3, and Sunday, Dec. 4, and then Tuesday through Saturday, Dec. 6-10.
Shows are indoors at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St., Ashland. The venue has new lighting, a new state-of-the-art sound system, and improved sight lines with some seating raised.
Talkbacks with the actor and director are scheduled after performances on Dec. 6 and 7.
Tickets can be purchased online for $30 at roguetheatercompany.com. Tickets are also available at the door for $40, cash or check only.
Reach freelance writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review mentions suicide, a topic raised in the play. Individuals in crisis or looking to help someone else who is can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.