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Every Brilliant Thing ~ Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
June 24, 2019 

Studio Theater’s new Milton Theatre is looking to attract a summer crowd and last night it did.  Called SHOWROOM it is a casual space offering specialty cocktails and snacks at the bar.   Olney Theatre Center’s production of Every Brilliant Thing, by playwrights Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe, is a one-man, one-act play about suicide and was the first of the off-beat performances of the season.  Pleasantly ensconced at café tables lit with candles, the youngish crowd had bought their drinks and looked ready for a Friday date night that promised audience participation.  Touted as a comedy, it seemed as though fun was just around the corner.

Alexander Strain and an audience member in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

So, maybe I should have had what they were drinking, or snagged one of the cards that was handed out in advance to a smattering of guests so they could call out some of the “brilliant things” Alexander was grateful for while his mother lay in hospital after another suicide attempt.  But for me, no amount of jokes or self-deprecating comedic schtick could subtract from the fact that a family was being torn asunder by a mother’s crushing depression and nothing could stop that fateful train from jumping the tracks.

Alexander Strain and an audience member in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Thinking about my feelings for the play, I drifted off to sleep that night and had a dream about it – a dream as quirky as the play itself.  I dreamed that Amy Schumer was in a play she had written and was eager to get a group of us into the theater to see it.  She described it as a story about her mother’s suicide.  We didn’t want to see her act out her personal tragedy, but she begged us to participate.  We entered the theater (in Greece, no less) and the more we listened, the more we wanted her to stop.  Because though it seemed to be alleviating her sorrow, we couldn’t bear to hear the whole dismal story.

The audience and Alexander Strain in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

That’s what this play is about more or less, except that the audience is conscripted to shout out these brilliant things like “ice cream”, “staying up past bedtime”, “things with stripes”, etc.  Much of the time these non-actors couldn’t be heard across the room.  My seatmate turned to me on several occasions with a quizzical look, as if hoping I would tell him.  That left us wondering what the brilliant thing was that Alexander as the child, who later presents as a teenager, and ultimately a college student with his own crushing depression, might have said.

I’ll grant you it might seem like a healthy psychological exercise to look for the sunny side of life while everything around you is crumbling, but nonetheless, it doesn’t work out in the end for Alexander, even though a woman from the audience has been asked to play his dying dog’s vet, another has been asked to play his guidance counselor, and a man is challenged to play Alexander’s father, a man so removed from his child’s life, he closets himself away when the going gets tough.

Audience members and Alexander Strain in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Once in college Alexander learns of Goethe’s notions about suicide and subs an audience member to play the part of his college professor.  He references ‘social contagions’ and agrees with the notion that we are unconsciously affected by the behavior of our peers – as in copycat suicides.  It’s called the ‘Werther Effect’ after Goethe’s notable character.  As Alexander tells us, “Children of depressed mothers have a heightened sense of stress.”  It would be good to keep this warning in mind when writing a play about suicide.

The evening’s oddest moment came when a pretty girl who was asked to pretend she was Alexander’s girlfriend didn’t understand how the game was played.  Everyone else in the audience had understood they were to parrot the words he voiced aloud to them but even after he repeatedly fed her the lines, she opted to concoct her own responses until she finally had that aha moment and played along.  LOL… or not.

Alexander Strain and an audience member in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

So, see it if you’ve never known anyone who has committed suicide.  That’s my warning.  Just be sure to order a cocktail first.  Who knows?  You might find it amusing.

Directed by Jason Loewith and starring Alexander Strain.

Through July 7th at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information about the remaining shows in the run, visit or call 202 232.7267

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