Reviewed by Betsy Estes
I must confess that as a theatre-goer I usually gravitate toward Broadway musical productions – big stage, big lights, big cast. Attending HATTheatre’s production of Every Brilliant Thing was outside my normal theatre experience (black box theatre, one actor show, no musical numbers, audience participation, you get the idea), but I am so glad I made the leap. Every Brilliant Thing explores what it is like to live with someone who is suicidal. While this description sounds like the audience is in for a heavy evening, nothing could be further from the truth.
The main character (Chris Hester) welcomes us into his living room and takes us on an intimate journey of his struggles growing up with a mother who has depression. The play begins as he reminisces about his mother’s suicide attempt when he was seven years old. The pain and confusion of the young boy is palpable. All he wants to do is to make his mother feel better, so he starts a list. A list of “brilliant things” that make life worth living. Because he is seven when he starts the list, some examples include ice cream and roller coasters. We continue the journey with the main character as he enters his teen years and then again when he goes to college.
As the list grows, the shift is beautiful and hopeful and becomes a love letter of sorts. As the main character grows and matures, so does his list. There are rules – the items can’t be repeated, and the items should be experiences or people, rather than material things… “not too old to climb a tree” as well as “skinny dipping” are added to the list. We continue to follow the main character as he navigates the ups and downs of adulthood. This is a time filled with joy and sorrow. The play ends with the main character listening to a record, and we are left with a feeling of hope – that all is possible, if we remember there are millions of “brilliant things” to keep us going.
With a simple set, the production crew at HATTheatre creates a feeling of comfort, warmth, and safety from the minute you walk into the theatre lobby. As you enter the lobby, your senses are flooded with the delicious smells of warm cookies and coffee. After picking up your complimentary treats, you walk into the black box theatre and feel like you have walked in to your living room or maybe your neighbor’s living room. The stage is surrounded on either side by comfy wing chairs, love seats, and traditional theatre seating. The lighting accentuates the warmth of a home by using lamps on small tables scattered throughout the seating. Some of the tables even have trivia cards or chessboards. These thoughtful details help to complete the ambiance of the set, and to immerse the audience in the moment.
Chris Hester invites us into this emotional roller coaster with a compelling portrayal of a boy/teen/man who is looking to find the joy and hope in life. With only his voice, his body language, and minimal help from the audience (I’ll explain that in a bit), Hester has us laughing out loud, nodding our heads in agreement, gasping, and even wiping away a tear or two. Hester moves seamlessly from a funny one-liner to a moment of quiet despair. His comedic timing makes the play light, while his skilled inflections and pauses make us grieve with his character. Because of Hester’s skilled performance, the audience comes to love this character and roots for him during the entire play.
Did I mention there is audience participation?! As you walk into the theatre, Chris Hester is there to welcome you and to gauge how willing you are to participate in the play. He is friendly and funny and asks for help in such a way that it really is okay to say no. This is not my normal theatre experience, but even I felt comfortable enough to read something. Participation opportunities vary from reading one of the “brilliant things” to getting on stage and acting out a scene. Delightfully, the audience participation creates a certain trust and warmth that only adds to the overall message of the play.
Every Brilliant Thing fills a need in all of us (whether we have felt the impact of depression or not) to remember the joy and beauty in life. The play gives us an opportunity to stop and reflect on all the wonderful little things that we so often forget about in our fast-paced world.
The HATTheatre, in its twenty-sixth season, is located off Patterson Avenue in the West End of Henrico County. It is a 70-seat black box theater that strives to bring quality theatre to the public at affordable prices.
Every Brilliant Thing runs through March 15 with two shows remaining: March 10 at 2 p.m. and March 15 at 8 p.m. The show is appropriate for ages twelve and older. Tickets can be reserved by calling 804-343-6364. For more information, visit HATTheatre.