Fort Worth — Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Every Brilliant Thing at Circle Theatre is the one you’ll find sneaking up on you: that this one-hour, one-actor show isn’t a “solo act” at all—but instead, a soul-tugging, funny, and altogether memorable communal experience of theatre-making and shared emotion.
Don’t worry, no one is dragged onstage unwillingly. Instead, dozens of us are given (before the show) a clear cue, and a single line to read—one item from a list of things (“brilliant” in Brit-speak means great/awesome/wonderful) started by a small boy to help his depressed mother see that her life might be worth living. A few audience members are recruited to play crucial characters in the boy’s life. (At the performance reviewed, a children’s dentist of my acquaintance was gentle and amazing playing the father—and the boy himself at one point.)
Sensitively directed by Harry Parker, Zak Reynolds (Dogfight) plays the unnamed Boy with a dynamic, ever-moving physicality that’s the play’s centrifugal force, drawing us into an excellent script by Duncan Macmillan (with additions from British comedian Jonny Donahoe). Reynolds roams, dances, sings, and seems to make eye contact with each one of us—because yes, the show is played with house lights up.
It’s a bit brilliant.
What’s on the list? It begins where the seven-year-old in all of us would begin: “Number one.” Ice cream. We nod in affirmation. The Boy leaves his “picks” on small pieces of paper around the house, where his mother will find them. Over time, he grows, and the list changes along with him. “Number 1005.” Writing about yourself in the third person. “Number 9993.” Dreams of flying.
Reynolds moves easily between the two poles of the action: the whimsical comedy of the list, and the real-life grief and panic of the Boy whose mother’s repeated suicide attempts shape his life. Everything has weight and meaning—even the funniest lines are part of a life-and-death effort. As the Boy becomes a young man, the terms of his falling in love, even, are spoken and responded to through the list.
And there’s music, too—R&B and jazz, in particular—that acts as an ongoing connector between the Boy and his unhappy parents. Sound designer David H.M. Lambert makes the most of those moments—as does Reynolds, whose musical theater chops get a chance to gleam. Clare Floyd DeVries’ bare-minimum set design and Megan Beddingfield’s array of props are the furniture of the Boy’s heart and mind—and lighting designer John Leach keeps a perfect balance of stage lighting and visible audience, which can be trickier than you’d think.
In that shared, lit-up theater space (or do I mean “woke”?) we find ourselves watching others in the audience—all of us listening hard, waiting for our cue to come up, smiling at list items we ourselves might include. We applaud those among us who play substantial scenes with Reynolds, speaking thoughtfully, rising to an occasion they couldn’t have come in expecting. We are making the play, too—responding in ways that make this performance one of a kind.
We are reminded with every moment that humans are never too young for sorrow, never too young to carry the burden of someone else’s pain. Reminded too that the unbearable darkness of being, like a shadow growing up a wall, only exists because around the shadow there is light, light all around us. Small points of happiness and large joys are within reach, if only we will see them. Every Brilliant Thing seems like a small-scale work. But in the moment, in the experience, it plays larger every minute, especially, perhaps, in a month where we once again recognize the terrible trauma we allow to be inflicted on children—and puzzle over the suicides of famous men and women who seemed to have so much light and life of their own.
You wouldn’t, perhaps, think so much woe and so much fun could be crammed into one goofy, grieving and ultimately heart-lifting hour of theater, but here we are: Every Brilliant Thing is a treat.