Review: ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ shines light on mental health in pandemic times

Live indoor theatre returns to the Segal Centre from May 1-16 in a socially distanced production of Macmillan & Donahoe's 2014 play

Daniel Brochu in Every Brilliant Thing at the Segal Centre, 2021 (Photo Credit: Leslie Schachter)

With the passing of 416 days since the Segal Centre for Performing Arts last welcomed patrons inside its doors for a public performance (and with 217 days counting since I most recently put metaphorical pen to paper to compose a theatre review), Every Brilliant Thing makes the don’t-kick-the-bucket-list of pandemic moments worth hanging in there for.

A Segal Centre production presented in association with the Hudson Village Theatre, Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s contemporary play is among the first live-in-person theatrical offerings for Montrealers since the COVID-19 lockdowns shut down show venues in Quebec over a year ago. It was uncertain if the companies would even open creative shop in the 2020-21 season with the 3rd wave of the virus in loom this spring, but optimism here appears as the order of the moment.

Directed by Hudson Village Theatre Artistic Director Dean Patrick Fleming and assistant directed by Jimmy Blais, Every Brilliant Thing brings veteran Montreal actor Daniel Brochu centre stage for the anecdotal retellings of a boy-turned-man who, upon discovering he has a suicidally depressed mother, decides to make a list for her of all the things that he deems worth living for. From the pint-sized pleasures of “#1: ice cream” to the seemingly trifling treasures of “knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli,” the present-day adult version of his character recounts and counts with us his blessings in valiant attempts to save his beloved kin. As the list grows with the forward ticking of the clock, however, he becomes confronted with his own existential angst, turning to life’s minutiae as tiny shots of mirth during dire times.

Photo Credit: Leslie Schachter

With our narrator’s humorous contemplation on the purpose of being soon comes our own invested interest in the story, for the one-man show is not quite a solo 70-minute act, but a participative audience experience. And gung-ho our speckled crowd of spectators seem to be (on opening day, at least – perhaps taken by the thrill of being gathered in a shared space once again after many a month in isolation). One may wonder if interactive, immersive theatre is apropos given current mandated health and safety protocols, but the performance walks the tightrope balance of ensuring physical distancing and mask-wearing without disengaging audience members. Line shouts and bit parts from unrehearsed voices lends honesty and humour to a motley crew of characters which, in a traditional one-hander, would have been tasked for play by a singularly skilled actor. It is in these communal moments that the artistic decision to stage this particular piece becomes evident; and with house lights up, fourth wall down, and the ability to see each other at all times, there are unexpected small sparks of human connection.

Much of the warmth emanates from Danny Brochu, who has the layered challenges of improvising text, memorizing randomized sequences of numbers between one and one million, and getting back on the track of the relatively controlled narrative when it all comically goes off course. Gaging the response of masked onlookers proves another trial, but his affable, earnest energy is sustained throughout. The piece isn’t Brochu’s autobiographical tale, but he makes it personal. Brilliant storytelling.

Photo Credit: Leslie Schachter

I should confess, however, that perhaps in a theatrical season with more pickings, I might be less enthusiastic about Every Brilliant Thing. With the list-citing as the structural spine of the show, many of the branching “why?”s around the narrator’s story of his mother and their relationship are left unanswered. The script skims the surface of their internal battles, and sugars some the fore subject matter of mental health as it is realistically experienced and dealt with by impacted individuals and their families. Ça va bien aller sounds splendid and all… but, rose-coloured glasses removed, sometimes things don’t get better.

But there’s a message here still worth clinging on to, even for audiences that don’t fully respond to the well-intended buoyant cheer, and the treatment of the sensitive topic of suicide is sensible in not being overly histrionic, pedantic, or maudlin. And there is something to be remarked about the beauty of lists, which, in their simplicity of structure, are how we make order of chaos and reimagine our way forward. An afternoon of easy, feel-good entertainment before dreadful curfew buys us one life-affirmative day more.

And while the production elements are also lightweight (Zoe Roux is credited for the minimal lighting & set design and Louise Bourret provides basic costume styling), the bare-bones nature of it all might just be enough of a fix for the starved playgoer. Stripped of adornment, Every Brilliant Thing takes us back to the basics of theatre – the essential element of storytelling upon which it is founded, and that might have been lost on us after a year in the dark. In retuning and returning to our senses, the actor-audience relationship takes on novel meaning and heightened form. Only in this renewing state, perhaps, can the light of wholesome intentions, hopes, and dreams of youth pierce through adult cynicism, making way for our ability to once again believe and make-believe.

Touching, humorous, and spirited, Every Brilliant Thing makes the to-see list in its immediacy to our times. A fitting “first show back”, certainly, with all the COVID health and safety precautions in place. Performances at the Segal Centre play through May 16th, with a future run at the partnering Hudson Village Theatre presumably in the works.

Every Brilliant Thing is a Segal Centre production presented in association with the Hudson Village Theatre from May 1st – May 16th, 2021 at the Segal Centre Studio. Tickets are $45 and must be reserved in advance by phone at 514-739-7944.

For more information:

Camila Fitzgibbon

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