Theater's simple magic abounds in the Arden Theatre Company's production of Every Brilliant Thing. Duncan Macmillan's one-hour script, written with actor Jonny Donahoe, relies on one actor speaking directly with the audience to share an intimate story spanning decades. Actually, he does more than "share." He makes us participants, inviting us to add ourselves and discover our own stories.
Every Brilliant Thing's timeless subject is death, to which we all relate, but that doesn't hinder the show's warmth and humor. Scott Greer plays the unnamed narrator, visiting with patrons before the performance begins, assigning small parts written on index cards. The Arden’s new Bob and Selma Horan Studio has a living-room feeling: a central Oriental rug, 90 audience seats spread on four sides, and Christopher Haig's gentle lighting, which includes the embrace of a string of lights around the space. The houselights never fade.
Let me count the ways
The man plunges into a list of "everything brilliant worth living for," which he began writing at age seven, after his mother's "first attempt." The s-word (suicide) is seldom uttered. Audience members are each given list items to recite, which occurs several times — I received number six, "rollercoasters," which I loathe. That's the magic of our participation, though. We each own, in our own way, what we're assigned to say.
The list is the clever play's spine, growing through the man's life to over a million items, all of them "genuinely wonderful and life affirming," without too many material things. His life is comfortably ordinary. We share in his first experience of death, as his beloved dog is put to sleep; an audience member plays the veterinarian, another's coat becomes the dog, and a borrowed pen is the fatal syringe. When he falls in love, he exclaims, "At last, I understand the lyrics to pop songs!" We all sigh knowingly.
Only once is any audience member put on the spot to play a scene, a moment so delicately structured that I cannot see how it could fail. One of the play's many delightful surprises is how much the audience participation feels unforced and stress-free. We laugh with, not at, the person who takes off their own shoe and sock to make an impromptu sock puppet. Greer, in a masterfully understated feat of improvisation, guides and supports each volunteer.
Top of my list
Director Terrence J. Nolen's choice of Greer for the play's central role works on several levels. His warmth, vulnerability, and humor are ideal for Every Brilliant Thing. He convinces the audience that he's this man baring his soul about personal losses and we trust him to enlist us in his story. Ironically, this level of comfort is due in part to the Arden audience seeing him in over 30 other roles there alone, plus dozens more at other area theaters; we feel we know him as this character because we've seen him embody so many others.
It's one of the many benefits of a strong local acting community. Greer’s familiarity from other roles — as well as his skill, of course — helps us trust him. Another actor who we only meet as this character would feel more theatrically contrived, which seems backward. With Greer, we willingly and knowingly suspend our disbelief precisely because we did it before and were rewarded.
I love theater's impossible contradictions. I'm adding that to my list, along with Ray Charles, the word plinth, this new studio theater space, and Every Brilliant Thing.