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The Pandemic has caused a major shift in the structure of plays being presented in the Triangle. After the 18-month stretch of closed stages in the area, Raleigh houses have been presenting, while varied subjects on stage, a similarity on the structure of the plays being presented. That is, a short play, hovering around the 100-minute mark, with small casts, usually two. The largest cast I have seen in the five shows I have attended since the reopening, was four, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble at Theatre in the Park. I have seen Switzerland, also at TIP, with a cast of two; RLT's The Velocity of Autumn, two cast members; I and You at Burning Coal, two cast members; and now, Every Brilliant Thing at The Justice Theater Project, a one man show!
The reason for this is fairly straightforward: the length is designed to give the audience its due while keeping them in the theater, closed up with 50-60 other people, only for the shortest time necessary; and the cast size limits the number of unmasked players breathing on us. So, this trend is understandable. It is, however, also unmistakable. I never thought I would miss an intermission! I will monitor the next few plays I attend and see if this trend holds true.
The Justice Theater Project's above-mentioned Every Brilliant Thing, directed by J Chachula, describes the many things assembled by Duncan MacMillan in an effort to present all the "brilliant" things that make life worth living, in a list he presented to his mother after her (first) suicide attempt. He was seven at the time. The second time she made the attempt was ten years later. MacMillan admits that he handled the first attempt much better than he did the second. He puts this down to his not fully understanding the complete ramifications of the event he witnessed at the tender age of seven. His father describes his wife's actions this way: "your mother has done something stupid." Having done a few things "stupid" at the age of seven, this was not so horrid an event to him as was the second attempt, when, at 17, he more fully understood what it means to try and kill one's self.
MacMillan writes Every Brilliant Thing as if he were speaking to us all himself; thus, when the show is presented, the actor – being, in this case, Durham-based Thaddeus Edwards, who has been plying his trade in the Triangle for over two decades – speaks to us as MacMillan himself. Edwards did this, if you'll pardon the word, brilliantly. He was, at times, studied, funny, sarcastic, witty, even distressed, but he was at all times personable. Edwards slipped into the character with seeming ease, and he emerged as if he were MacMillan himself, and we were charmed.
This list that MacMillan is preparing throughout the show grows and changes over time. The first 500 entries include both things and actions. The first item is ice cream, being a seven-year-old's favorite thing in the world. Begun on November 9, 1985, the list has expanded after a time to include many kinds of events experienced in life, such as conversation – the simple interaction of two people who are trying to communicate. When the list reached 1000, he read the list to his mother. As the list grew, however, he began leaving single entries on Post-it® notes, all over the house. Or on things that were to be handled, like the lid of a mustard jar. While MacMillan was living his life, for example, his love affair and – sadly brief – marriage to his ladylove, Sam, the list continued to grow, being added to not only by himself but also by others who knew of its existence and purpose. By the end of the show, it has grown to a million. Having written entries on anything from Post-it® notes to cereal boxes, the list itself fills a cart. Edwards leaves the stage long enough to retrieve it. It is piled high with pages, scraps of various types, the aforementioned cereal box for example, and it is a mighty compilation.
While Edwards is the only one on stage, he acquires assistance from the audience as he asks various audience members for aid in having a notable conversation, as when he assumes the role of his dad in a conversation he has with his son. He has an audience member play Duncan in this conversation by responding to everything Dad says with "Why?" It occurs to me that we, as children, did such a thing in order to keep our conversationalist talking. As Dad, Edwards tried to come up with reasonable answers to the son's questions, until it became clear what was going on. Then Dad just stops answering. This, to a grown-up, is perhaps a reasonable reaction, but it is highly unsatisfactory to a seven-year-old.
At item #826,978 he becomes unable to come up with another entry, and he boxes up the entire list and throws it away. Sam retrieves it. As the end of the show approaches, the one million mark also looms. The final entry, as MacMillan entered it, marked a long-term pastime of his own: listening to a record for the first time. A tribute to the often-sought peace that we may derive from music. Having now reached the One Million Brilliant Things mark, MacMillan assembled it all for posterity. Finality; the completion of a monumental, lifelong endeavor. It changed the way he looked at life, himself.
Edwards brings the close of the show easily in hand. MacMillan, having been subjected to witnessing so distressed an act as attempted suicide, turns his reaction to it into a new and different way of looking at life: focusing on the million different things that make life worth living. Would we be able to do the same thing? Might we all be able to focus on the million things that make life worth living, in the very real sense? It is a question we might all ask ourselves.
Every Brilliant Thing continues through Sunday, October 24. For more details on this production please view the sidebar.