At Spinning Tree Theatre, a show about suicide that plays like a comedy

J. Robert Schraeder, Spinning Tree Theatre

Three years ago, my grandfather killed himself.

There were no warning signs (though there are usually warning signs). There was no note or phone call or obvious explanation. He left his house one morning and left us in the dark. I spent the intervening days between his death and his funeral speculating—agonizing, I suppose—about how I could have missed so much. About what I should have, could have done.

I’ve since made peace with a sentiment that ought to make me feel better but that actually makes me feel much worse: I couldn’t have done a damned thing. 

Every Brilliant Thing, the one-man show currently playing at Spinning Tree Theatre, starts with what seems like a facile premise—a seven-year-old boy, gutted by his mother’s suicide attempt, tries to make a list of “every brilliant thing” in the world to remind her that life’s worth living.

But the 2013 script, by Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe, is smart enough to interrogate its own conceit. A list that starts with childish pleasures (“Number one: ice cream. Number two: water fights.”) becomes more complicated and abstract as it stretches into the thousands, then toward one million. That seven-year-old boy grows up—goes to college—falls in love—gets depressed. The list starts to lose its appeal. 

I’ve made this show sound like a slog, haven’t I? It isn’t. The script is more often buoyant than maudlin, thanks to Doug Weaver’s brisk direction (the play runs a little over an hour) and a bushy-tailed performance by actor R. H. Wilhoit that’s achingly unadorned. Wilhoit flits seamlessly between the immediacy of childhood moments and the weary synthesis of adult reflections. 

He’s also a skilled improviser, which comes in handy given the baked-in audience participation. Before the show, Wilhoit passes out little scraps of paper scrawled with items from the list and instructs audience members to shout out their “brilliant thing” at the appropriate time. But he also drags a few audience members on stage to become uneasy scene partners for the show’s most dramatic moments. One stranger is asked to mime euthanizing his childhood dog, Sherlock Bones. Another dons a sock puppet to play a school counselor. In one of the most moving scenes, an audience member portraying the narrator’s father is asked to give an impromptu wedding toast. 

J. Robert Schraeder, Spinning Tree Theatre

That structure has drawbacks, of course. The opening night audience, packed with actors and other industry types, managed their tasks capably—but others may be reluctant to be conscripted (or stilted when they are). And the script risks distracting audiences even as it attempts to engage them. At times, I found myself drifting inward, away from the show, as I fretted about whether I’d be called on and what I might be asked to contribute. 

The production design is almost nonexistent, further blurring the line between Wilhoit and his audience. The house lights are up throughout the show, and the stage is mostly bare. Conor Tierney’s projections do most of the heavy lifting, alternating between backdrop images of the narrator’s favorite records and recurring animations for different list items (stage manager Spencer Thompson nails the rapid-fire cues). 

Despite the subject matter, Every Brilliant Thing plays like a comedy. The material is funny; Wilhoit’s delivery is charming. But MacMillan and Donahoe tuck a complex, sober truth inside the breezy sentimentality like a Trojan horse. No matter how long the list grows, it’s not enough. The list can’t save the narrator’s mother. It can’t save his relationship. Imagine telling someone with clinical depression that all they need to do is remember the taste of ice cream. 

Simply acknowledging that seems radical for a one-hour play. Dramatic structure depends on cause and effect; suicide doesn’t function that way. It’s not a linear act that can be traced back to a single stimulus. 

That the show still feels satisfying and hopeful is a major feat. Every Brilliant Thing reminds us that yes, it gets better, without succumbing to syrupy false notes. Cataloging the highs might not inoculate us against the lows, but it’s worth doing nonetheless. The show’s worth seeing nonetheless. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). 

Every Brilliant Thing

Through September 1 at Spinning Tree Theatre. 

Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf, Overland Park. 816-235-6222. 

On Twitter: @lizcookkc.

Categories: Theater