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There are plenty of reasons to be stressed, exhausted, and depressed right now. Probably always have been. The good news is that according to Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s 2013 play Every Brilliant Thing—the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s (PSF) season opener—there are also at least one million ways to find a little bit of joy every day.
Starting with “1. Ice Cream” and ending when the task is complete, the show’s sole actor, DeSales University alum Suzanne O’Donnell, brings the audience with her on her journey from childhood to adulthood via that expanding list of worthwhile moments. The reason she began crafting it in the first place is a heartbreaker: when she was seven, her father picked her up at school, told her, “Your mother did something stupid,” and brought her to the hospital, where her mom was being held after a suicide attempt. There would be more attempts, and the list would be remembered, forgotten, and amended as needed.
A theatrical cocoon
O’Donnell may be the only actor onstage, but she’s not the only performer. Audiences are expected to help out, so if you have trouble reading, standing, or speaking, let a staff member know before the lights go down. However, if you’re able, your participation is required in order to help weave the careful cocoon director Anne Hering crafts around this theater.
The play wants us to know we’re all in this together and O’Donnell, dressed casually in jeans and a lavender sweater, with open arms and a generous smile, invites everyone to be part of the village it took to raise this particular child. It’s an important sentiment that certainly needs to be heard from Center Valley to Capitol Hill and beyond.
So many parents throughout the pandemic have been seeing and treating mental health issues in their children, and inpatient wards for adults and kids alike currently have unprecedented waiting lists. A ticket to Every Brilliant Thing is no solution to these problems, but as a conversation opener with tight-lipped teens or others, it’s not a bad start.
A soft landing on a hard subject
The production acknowledges what a delicate subject mental health can be. In that vein, PSF offers talkbacks with O’Donnell and volunteers from the Lehigh Valley chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) after every show, plus a resource table stationed outside the theater door.
Fear not, this is hardly A Long Day’s Journey into Night. At roughly 70 minutes, it’s kind of a breezy overview of one person’s experience, framed by that list, and built more to bring laughter and a sense of community than to carry the usual weight surrounding suicide and depression. And that’s a nice departure.
However, that desire for lightness also takes a bite out of the script’s impact. Perhaps it’s because the show’s events are fictional and lack the intimacy and minutiae of a real first-person account. After all, we’ve gotten pretty used to true-story trauma onstage, in podcasts, and on our computer screens since the show’s debut. This one feels a bit padded and precious by its end, even if that padding makes for a soft and cozy experience.
But considering the violence in our daily news cycle and the myriad ways humans keep finding to torment ourselves and one another, a soft landing on a hard subject seems like a pretty humane way to spend an evening.
What, When, Where
Every Brilliant Thing. By Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe; directed by Anne Hering. $52-$66. Through June 19, 2022 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Shubert Theater, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, PA. (610) 282-9455 or pashakespeare.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is not required to attend, but masks must be worn inside the theater.
PSF is a wheelchair-accessible venue, and accommodates companion seating and service animals. Large-print programs and assisted listening devices are available. The Saturday, June 18 performance of Every Brilliant Thing will offer audio description and open captioning.
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