You might think a play about depression and suicide couldn’t possibly be funny—but Dezart Performs’ season-ending production of Every Brilliant Thing, by Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe, is chock full of laughs. Or course, it has its tragic moments as well.
This production is a departure, of sorts, for Dezart Performs and artistic director Michael Shaw. First, it is performed in the round, with the action in the center of the room, surrounded by the audience. Second, Every Brilliant Thing, directed by Deborah Harmon, is quite interactive: From the moment audience members walk in, they are drawn into the action. The Storyteller (Joel Bryant) welcomes everyone, like the host at a large cocktail party. He hands people small slips of paper with words or short phrases on them. We’re told these will be pivotal throughout the evening.
The tale begins when The Storyteller is 7 years old. His father picks the boy up from school and informs him that his mother has attempted suicide. He’s too young to really grasp the gravity of the situation; his only other experience with death was the trauma of having his aging dog put down.
Throughout his life, The Storyteller tries to understand his mother’s emotional pain. She tries to kill herself on several other occasions. The subject seems to be taboo with the boy’s father, who chooses to lock himself in his office and listen to loud, dissonant jazz music rather than talk about it.
As an emotional outlet, the boy begins compiling a list of everything wonderful about life—hence the play’s title. Starting with ice cream, the list includes rollercoasters, people falling over and things with stripes. From time to time, The Storyteller calls out a number on the list, and the audience member with the corresponding number reads what’s on the slip of paper he or she was given. As the list grows, he occasionally shares it with his mother, hoping it will make her feel better. Throughout the play, folks in the audience are chosen randomly to portray characters in the story, including the school counselor and The Storyteller’s father.
As he grows up, heads to college and then marries, The Storyteller has to deal with his own anger, depression and grief about the family situation.
As with any one-person play, the quality of the production lies squarely on the actor—and Dezart wisely chose Joel Bryant. I saw Bryant work his magic onstage in Dezart’s production of Maytag Virgin back in 2019, so I was not surprised he hit this one out of the park.
Because there is so much interaction with the audience, it’s crucial to have an actor who comes across as warm, friendly, affable and nonthreatening—and Bryant checks all those boxes. You also need someone with strong acting chops, who can segue easily from comedy to the very dark moments. Again, Bryant nails it. In near-constant motion, with no set and no other actors, The Storyteller is out there all alone. This only works if the audience feels a real connection with the character, like a good buddy telling you a fascinating tale over a beer in his living room. That’s exactly what happens here, thanks to Bryant; there is not one false moment.
The other key piece of the puzzle is good direction, and Harmon proves she’s a pro. In a one-person play, the actor and director need to click right from the start. It seems clear that Harmon and Bryant worked together beautifully to present their vision of this story—and to immerse us in the journey.
Music is used quite effectively throughout this production. Sound designer Clark Dugger juggles all of the cues masterfully and deserves special mention.
Every Brilliant Thing is a powerful play—particularly for anyone who has had personal experience with deep depression and suicide. I am one of those people. My mother tried to take her own life when I was a child, and she battled depression for much of her life. I, too, have struggled with bouts of clinical depression, and also once attempted suicide. Today, I am very grateful that I did not succeed.
Go see Every Brilliant Thing. It is sometimes dark, and it is sometimes hilarious—but it is always powerful and effective.
Dezart Productions’ production of Every Brilliant Thing is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 10, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $37 to $42, and the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.