Depression and suicide are no laughing matter, but the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s production of “Every Brilliant Thing” is far from sad. Ostensibly it takes us on a journey of the narrator, here expertly played by the very talented Scott Barrow, from the age of 7 through adolescence to adulthood, as he deals with his mother’s depression and suicide attempts by making a list of brilliant, joyful things.
The focus on the growing and evolving list over the decades creates an uplifting experience overall. And “experience” is a big part of it, since the audience plays a significant role throughout the play. Entering the theater, which in this case was the amphitheater in Vineyard Haven, Barrow was already chatting with the audience, asking us right off to pick a few cards out of a bag. Each had a number and corresponding item for the list that he would have us read aloud at the appropriate time throughout the play. I pulled cards for “piglets,” “reading something that articulates exactly what you feel, but lacked the words to express yourself,” and “having a piano in the kitchen.”
As it turned out, during the play Barrow also asked various audience members to step into certain roles, including his father, a school guidance counselor, a professor, and his girlfriend. Barrow skillfully slid in and out of the script as he simultaneously fed the audience members their lines. He orchestrated it all seamlessly, so that the experience was of a whole rather than disjointed. In fact, Barrow bound us even more closely into the theatrical space.
His talent shines in inhabiting the narrator as he ages. He embodied the slightly awkward, inquisitive, and earnest 7-year-old as he tries to deal with the trauma of his mother’s suicide attempt. The solution, as he waits outside of her hospital room from which she has banned him, is the start of the list of joyful things. As Barrow calls our number the items include “ice cream,” “staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV,” “the color yellow,” and “wearing a cape.” Mom rejects the list meant to cheer her up.
Barrow morphs perfectly into the angst-ridden teenager 10 years later, at his mother’s next attempt. This is a time in his life where, he explains, he wore his heart on his sleeve. During a frenzy of cleaning his room, he comes across the list and revives it, reflecting that his younger self dealt with the situation better, as naive but full of hope. Now he touchingly carves the joyful items into fruit, stencils them onto baguettes as well as Post-its. As he — and we — read off the new brilliant things, they reflect a growing maturity — “making up after an argument,” “Marlon Brando” — and more.
In college, where we watch him fall in love, the list takes on a life of its own as he shares it with the woman he eventually marries. From there we follow him into adulthood, where the specter of his mother hangs over him.
Barrow intersperses life-affirming moments with sobering information, such as how children of parents who commit or attempt suicide tend to blame themselves, and that when a celebrity commits the act, there is a spike in numbers of suicides in the general public. Barrow too at one point reads from the Mental Health Foundation media guidelines for reporting about a suicide, such as not to describe it as successful, or to include distressing images, and the like.
But “Every Brilliant Thing,” written by Duncan MacMillan with Johnny Donahoe, first produced in 2013, helps us look at the issue of mental health through warm humor. Director Brooke Hardman Ditchfield’s production here is very much of a time and place, with references to the need for social distancing fully integrated into the play. Likewise, it, as do all the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s productions this summer, takes place outdoors. The absence of a formal indoor theater setting adds to the sense of intimacy, making it feel even more like a collective effort, which at the end leaves you feeling hopeful … and pondering the first few things you would put on your own list of brilliant things to cherish.
“Every Brilliant Thing” runs from July 8 to 18 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 6 pm at the amphitheater in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are available at mvplayhouse.org/theater.