By Lynn Venhaus
Something so simple yet so profound, “Every Brilliant Thing” harnesses the euphoria of a fresh outlook, the childlike wonder of a new discovery and the bittersweet touchstones of love, loss and laughter.
This bracing 65-minute monologue mixes comedy and tragedy into a potent aperitif, for this timeless message is especially poignant this holiday season.
The narrator is the adult daughter of a mother whose chronic depression altered her emotional development and life perspective. She was 7 when her mother first attempted suicide.
In the intimate setting of the Kranzberg Arts Center black box theater, Nancy Nigh takes us on the narrator’s heart-wrenching and humorous personal journey through the lens of her own creative balm.
It started as a child’s sunny list of life’s very best offerings to cheer up her despondent mom — 1. Ice cream, 2. Water fights, 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV, 4. The color yellow, and so on. Then turned into a lifeline, a burden and a security blanket during adolescence, college, marriage, bumpy roads and eventually, peace and acceptance.
The list is as broad as 11. Bed and 1006. Surprises – who can argue, right? – and as specific as 2390. People who can’t sing but either don’t know or don’t care and 1654. Christopher Walken’s voice.
The list eventually grew to a million, with entries as clever as 123321. Palindromes, as funny as 7. People falling over, as adorable as 575. Piglets, as pleasurable as 9997. Being cooked for, and as nostalgic as 315. The smell of an old book.
It’s quite a feat. And compulsive list-makers can identify, as well as people who feel helpless when they can’t protect, control or prevent family members from harm.
Alone surrounded by the audience, Nigh is crucial to the mood. To make us comfortable, she must be both vulnerable and strong, relaxed yet firm.
After all, the rollercoaster ride of emotions will affect us in a deeply personal way – and she must be a safety net. And vice versa — we’re hers.
Audience interaction and participation are essential elements that keep the one-woman show unpredictable and improvisational.
The one-act play was first produced in England, at the 2013 Ludlum Fringe Festival, and started out as a short story called “Sleevenotes” by Duncan McMillan. For the stage, he involved comedian Jonny Donahue, who was filmed for the 2016 HBO presentation.
The play’s specialness is its authentic lived-in quality, mixing the merry and the morose in such a way to connect us all.
Free of any artifice, Nigh guides us without missing a beat. The narrator is not merely reciting a litany of her favorite things, therefore we tag along through key turning points in her life.
The narrator becomes the director, telling a few people what to say and where to move. Some are just called on to read list entries. Nigh does so effortlessly, with an easy charm.
She also conveys the narrator’s bravery, for the hardest things to talk about are things we should talk about – and this play allows us to, for catharsis can come out of crushing sadness. She has earned this accomplishment.
Director Tom Kopp keeps Nigh on the move, so she’s not for long in any one corner. The staging is in the storytelling. Taking part is very natural – not awkward or embarrassing, or cringe-inducing.
A nice touch is how important music is to the people in the story, from her father’s influential record collection to the sublime sounds of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.”
McMillan’s descriptive writing has woven in research about clinical depression, and the shadow of suicide lingers. As heart-wrenching as it is humorous, the play has an ebb and flow, not unlike the song ‘Sunrise, Sunset.”
Yet it never feels less than real, and there is no sugar-coating. If it triggers anything, an usher lets you know beforehand that it’s OK to leave for a bit.
In an uplifting and inspiring way, the play urges us to celebrate the small pleasures of life. Now. Don’t wait for moments – let them in, be open to them.
How can you not smile at 521. The word plinth, or 536. Winning something?
“Every Brilliant Thing” is a comforting and joyous reminder of the random moments that make a life.
Above all, this R-S Theatrics’ presentation stresses kindness. Above all, kindness. We know that this play hits too close to home for so many. We all want to say things may not always be brilliant, but they do get better – before it’s too late. The program includes information on CHADS Coalition for Mental Health, resources, crisis hotline numbers and tips.
R-S Theatrics presents “Every Brilliant Thing” Nov. 16 – Dec. 2, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. in the Kranzberg Black Box, 501 N. Grand Blvd. For tickets, visit. www.r-stheatrics.com or call 314-252-8812.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.