Ice cream. Wonder Woman. Things with stripes. Spaghetti with meatballs. Being allowed to stay up late to watch TV.
For any seven-year-old girl, this is a list of awesomeness. However, for one seven-year-old girl, these items have a tragic undertone. Her's is a list of all the brilliant things in the world meant to cheer her mother up after attempting suicide for the first time
Every Brilliant Thing, by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, follows the story of a child’s attempts to cope with her mother’s severe depression and later in life, her own mental health issues, by creating and adding more and more items to a list of things to live for.
As the child (the play’s narrator) grows into a woman, the titular list, now pushing into the hundreds of thousands, changes. Items about romantic love appear. Music plays a starring role. So do palindromes.
Sometimes the list is funny. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes it makes your heart burst. Always it’s a reminder that good things exist if you just stop to think of them.
It’s a lovely and hopeful message, one that’s helped make Every Brilliant Thing one of the most beloved solo pieces in the last few years since it was first performed at a British Fringe Festival in 2013, and subsequently broadcast on HBO.
But while the show has a tender sweetness to it, its real appeal comes from the quirky and humorous interactive nature of the performance and the strength of the actor taking on the narrator role.
“No one here will be embarrassed”, says Shannon Emerick who plays the narrator in this Houston Equity Festival production. “I don’t stand for embarrassing people in the theater, but I do need your help to tell the story.”
This help ranges from being asked to read out her list items, given to us on cue small cards as we take our seats (the house lights are left on for the duration of the show to make sure we can read what we're given), to standing in for people in the narrator’s life at certain points in the story. The former requiring little of us, the latter asking certain audience members to possibly come up on stage and even improvise just a tad.
Opening night featured an audience full of theater people, so cajoling volunteers was a breeze, but my bet is that Emerick's naturally calming and caring nature will put audiences at ease no matter who sits in those seats.
It’s this same nature, however, that at times, gets in the way of Emerick fully leaning into the role.
The show’s narrator, whether played by a man or a woman, is a damaged, anxious soul, made this way by the tension and personal consequences that come from living with a suicidal parent.
While Emerick, a talented and soulful performer, certainly has the heart of the character down perfectly (her moments of falling in love are perfectly swoon-worthy), she lacks the angsty twitchiness and outsider nerdiness the role demands.
Without it, scenes such as learning about her mum’s suicide attempt from her father, her obsessive college research after being triggered by a prof and a post break up panic moment all register too smoothly. We need the rough edges to scrape us into really connecting with this story. We need to feel the jaggedness of the pain. We need permission to allow our reactions to be just as raw.
Never once have I seen this production without hearing a cacophony of sniffles from the audience. This time, nary a one. Emerick wins us over because her performance makes us love her as opposed to worrying about her, and the stakes are less as a result.
Perhaps if Director Rebecca Greene Udden had allowed a little more breathing room in the show, things would have been different. At times, it felt as if Emerick was rushed through moments, not allowing for pauses or even silence to set in and emphasize a thought, emotion or even the funnier moments of the script.
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Additionally, the many musical cues called for in the script felt tremendously underplayed. If a piece of music is mentioned by an actor and intended for us to then listen to, for heaven’s sake, play more than three seconds of it so we can register and appreciate its narrative importance.
If I was able to add my own brilliant thing to the list in this show it would be this: the fact that a review is not a verdict, but rather the start of a discussion.
Maybe you go see this show for the first time and think it's gorgeous just the way Emerick played it. Maybe you've seen it before and think it's very good but still missing something. Regardless, the truly brilliant thing is that thanks to the Houston Equity Festival and Shannon Emerick, Every Brilliant Thing is on stage now for us to go see and decide for ourselves.
Every Brilliant Thing runs through October 5 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays and 3 p.m. Saturdays at Main Street Theater- Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreetheater.com. Or purchase online. $15-$25.