"If you've never been depressed, you weren't paying attention": so says the narrator/actor of Every Brilliant Thing currently playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. -- Devised by playwright Duncan MacMillan and actor Jonny Donahoe in 2013, it was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival, made into an HBO special in 2016, and has had several successful stage productions in this country and abroad.
ASF's new Artistic Director Rick Dildine's first directing credit here brings MFA Class of 2002 alumnus David Lee Nelson to play the role of a young man who, remembering his childhood at seven years old, was told by his father that his mother had done "something stupid". The boy doesn't comprehend depression or suicidal tendencies; he just knows that his mother is in the hospital, so he sets out to compile a list of things to cheer her up for her to read: ice cream, water fights, Kung Fu movies, hammocks, staying up late... The list grows over the years, reaching countless thousands, becoming as much an antidote for him as for his mother; and for us.
The action takes place with the 150 audience members seated on the Festival stage where they become participants in his story, calling out pre-arranged "brilliant things" on the list, or being gently conscripted into playing characters in the young man's life and memory.
Mr. Nelson is an ideal narrator, making audiences instantly comfortable with his self-deprecating and genial manner that takes a difficult topic and subjects it to scrutiny with a seriousness edged with humor. He energetically moves around and through the audience, calling out numbers to which they respond with items on his list; or they become his father, teacher, and others who flesh out the story.
In just over an hour, we travel some 30 years through his and his mother's ups and downs, never forgetting his mission to give hope to her and to any one of us who suffers or knows someone who suffers as she does. The close proximity of actor and audience gives no escape from the issue at hand; we forget that we are at a performance and willingly get involved, becoming a kind of support group for him.
Though the topic is serious, there is a lot of laughter on the Festival stage, laughter that provides a cathartic psychological relief from all-too-familiar connections we all have with depression. -- And, as he says, there's always hope.