Photo courtesy of Sewanee theatre department
By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
River and Rail Theatre’s production of Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan McMillan arrived at the Tennessee Williams Center this season. Before being ushered into the Proctor Hill Theatre, each audience member was handed a yellow slip of paper sporting a number and a phrase. “When he calls out your number,” they were told, “read the words out, loud and clear.”
Each yellow slip held a brilliant thing. Number one: ice cream.
Every Brilliant Thing is a one man show, and that man is Joshua Peterson. Directed by his wife, Amelia Peterson, the play follows the life of a young boy as he grows up trying to navigate life while simultaneously dealing with his mother’s attempted suicides.
He comes up with an ingenious idea: to make a list about all the things that are good in the world in a brave endeavor to try and convince his mother that there are things worth living for. In between lapses over the years, he finds himself returning to the list, adding more and more to it until finally, there is nothing left to add.
“What we loved about it was the honesty and frankness,” says Amelia Peterson. “The way it incorporates the audience in the play is unlike anything we’d ever read.”
Audience participation is integral to the show. Aside from reading out the brilliant things on the yellow slips of paper, Joshua Peterson quite literally pulls individual audience members into the show by asking them to play certain people in the main character’s life.
From his childhood veterinarian to his wife, each character is played by a different person every night, which gives the show its dynamic charm. But the heart of the play is Peterson himself: at times energetic and uplifting, at others solemn and gut-wrenching. However, the play never once wavers in one regard: it is truly, deeply honest, and Peterson’s electric performance never suggests otherwise.
Suicide is not an easy issue to address in a play. When River & Rail Theatre began rehearsals in Knoxville, they heard news stories about suicide victims at various high schools. Around this same time, Netflix streamed 13 Reasons Why, which led to suicide becoming a part of the topical conversation.
Every show—theatrical or otherwise—runs the risk of seeming either too harrowing or too misinformed. Every Brilliant Thing, nevertheless, achieves the fine balance between the dispiriting reality and the hopeful promise that there is indeed light after darkness. “Things do get better,” says the main character, “even if they’re not brilliant, they do get better.”
“The show acknowledges that [suicide] happens, but it really focuses on the lives of the people who are left behind and how they can continue to move forward,” says Amelia Peterson. “We hope that it provides a sense of ‘I’m not alone’ for anyone who’s thought about suicide, and that it encourages them to start a conversation with people.”
After every performance, there is a talkback, where Joshua Peterson sits with two local mental health professionals to talk about the implications of suicide. Audience members are encouraged to stay after the show for this discussion, which hopes to alleviate many of the preconceptions attached to different forms of mental illness, focusing on suicide.
“Ultimately the theme of the play is that for those families and individuals who struggle with any kind of mental illness, that you’re not alone,” says Joshua Peterson. “I think if somebody walked away with a little bit of glimmer of hope, if it relieved a little bit of the mental stigma, then that would be, I think, a big step.”
When asked what brilliant thing of his own he would add to the list, Joshua Peterson replied, “My daughter’s hugs are pretty darn good.”
Every Brilliant Thing is a show that exudes warmth and welcome, all the while provoking thought and a new sense of understanding, its ability to awe and inspire the audience a testament to its excellence. The way it incorporates the audience into the play is a profound reminder that we are all a part of each other’s stories; that no matter how sad we might be feeling, we are not alone. We all have our brilliant things, and we should strive to be aware of them.