On April 1 of this year, 24-year-old Lindsey Bedenk and 30-year-old William Charles Best Jr. walked to the top of the Ravenel Bridge and shot themselves. Following the suicide pact, it was discovered that Bedenk had left a final farewell on her Facebook page: “I lived a wonderful life. My own mind was the only thing that was wrong.”
Like any suicide, the news produced many unanswered questions, but one of the most frustrating for me was, Why would two people who had met in therapy, a place of hope, choose to end their lives this way? That’s the heartbreaking thing about suicide, we’ll never know. And while people can chastise self-inflicted death as selfish, it’s hard to see what’s selfish about a case of depression so overwhelming that its only remedy is departing this world.
That’s the heavy theme of playwright Duncan MacMillan and star Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing. And remarkably, it’s a comedy.
The one-man show begins with Donahoe as a child shortly after his mother’s first suicide attempt. A seven-year-old trying to make sense of it all, Donahoe does what only a kid would think to do, he makes a list for his mother of all the wonderful reasons to keep living:
1. Ice cream
2. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV
3. Things with stripes
He calls his list: every brilliant thing.
Now an entire play about a list might sound tedious, but here’s where MacMillan and Donahoe are such innovators. This is an interactive performance. The cast is the audience and Donahoe includes them in every single show.
“I use the audience to share stories, and get them up to do things,” says Donahoe speaking by phone from London. “I should warn the listener not to be scared though.”
Quite the contrary, in fact. While the Every Brilliant Thing actor doesn’t deny that he recruits guests to be part of the performance, even the biggest haters of audience participation have confessed to loving it. In his review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley writes, “Mr. Donahoe presides over it as a host who is skilled in the art of disarming; he generates the illusion that he is somehow our acquaintance of long standing. He knows us well enough to tease us, it seems, but also likes us enough to keep us from making fools of ourselves.”
The beauty of Donahoe’s audience whisperer skill set — honed over 300-plus shows — is his ability to pluck unlikely performances out of his recruits.
“People are constantly surprising me,” he says. At one point in the play, Donahoe pulls an audience member up to portray his Dad. The person has to give a speech at Donahoe’s wedding. “That’s been one of the most extraordinary moments,” he says. “Some people get up there and just say ‘Raise your glass’ while others have given 15-minute longs speeches.”
Audience participation has also opened the door to powerful moments that reflect history. “An audience member plays my partner and it can be a man or a woman. When we opened in New York City, the marriage law had just changed and my partner was a man. Instead of just a normal moment of a marriage it became a powerful political moment,” he says.
But even amidst Every Brilliant Thing‘s more somber moments, the goal Donahoe says, is to always elicit laughs. “It’s a very heavy topic but it is funny and sweet,” he says. “I don’t think it’s possible, really, to go through life without experiencing depression in one form or another. Or experience it happening to a family member. One in four of us will experience mental health issues during our lifetime. There is that constantly there in the background of many conversations I have in life. It’s a modern plague that affects us. The only way to deal with it is to be open and up front and talk about it and share and not just share, but hopefully share humor. And hopefully the play is not just joyful but very funny about one of the darkest and most difficult things to talk about.”