Adrianne Krstansky, a marvelous actress, understandably exhibits signs of the strain of having to carry the entire production on her shoulders.
Every Brilliant Thing, by Duncan Macmillan. Directed by Marianna Bassham. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, MA, through March 31.
By Robert Israel
The subject of depression, anxiety, and suicide is widely misunderstood. Even though we live in a more informed society in the 21st century, we still have a long way to go when it comes to expressing compassion (and committing the resources) to help those suffering from mental illness. Yes, posters on the MBTA urge those struggling with mental illness to seek help at various Boston-area institutions, to reach out to the Samaritans, or to join a clinical study at MGH. But posters are easily ignored. It takes education and an intervention to hear a cry for help and a structure in place act on it to help the person to find support and/or treatment.
Thus the merit of Every Brilliant Thing, which deals boldly with the subject of mental illness. It is being given an insightful but uneven production at SpeakEasy Stage Company, where the evening stars the engaging and talented Adrianne Krstansky. The problem is that the demanding weight of the subject relies too heavily on its solo performer, in this case Krstansky, and her considerable ability to convince us that she is a person with a depressed mother. This puts an enormous responsibility on Krstansky to make a challengingly murky subject clear, particularly depression/suicide, which resists that kind of transparency.
The play revolves around a daughter who battles her mother’s illness in a home where that illness has sucked her and her (unseen) father into a maelstrom of pain. In an attempt at keeping things moving along, the script has her reaching out to audience members, who, having been handed slips of yellow paper beforehand, recount aloud from an endless list of seemingly arbitrary “brilliant things” that Krstansky has compiled as a therapeutic tool to help distract her mother from the depths of her hopelessness. These snippets are key to the protagonists’ journey from childhood to adulthood. They draw on humor, and sometimes we hear a snatch or two of music, designed to help move Duncan Macmillian’s lugubrious script forward.
The difficulty with this as a theatrical device is that there are far too many of these snippets. Often times, the audience, employed to be de facto members of the cast, do not deliver their assignments audibly. A puzzling aspect of the production is that a microphone is available — but it is used infrequently. Lightweight mics could easily be distributed to willing members of the audience who agree to participate beforehand. But that isn’t the approach. So, instead, we get a lot of mumbling, many bumbled lines, and a solo performer left to carry on despite formidable obstacles.
In Every Brilliant Thing‘s best moments, making use of the audience members in this fashion is an effective device: it creates a psychodrama, like those used by therapists to set up a safe environment where several people with assigned roles put a human face on members of the afflicted person’s world to help him or her visualize the source of their mental anguish. This device pops up when Krstansky seeks the help of a school counselor, for example, who removes her shoes and uses her sock by inserting her hand inside it, to speak to the child in an unthreatening and sympathetic voice. The night I attended the audience member was willing, audible, and compassionate – all three ingredients are needed – and it worked, splendidly.
But there needs to be more of these theatrically satisfying moments. As it stands now, Krstansky, a marvelous actress, understandably exhibits signs of the strain of having to carry the entire production on her shoulders.
A companion play, ‘night Mother, Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer prize-winning script about suicide, came to mind frequently while I watched this show (Norman wrote the drama about a daughter struggling with mental illness). Like Norman’s play, Every Brilliant Thing aims to bring us closer to an understanding of depression, to encourage our compassion for those trapped in the dark. In a sense, the script picks up where Norman’s play left off. But this production needs to grapple more seriously with how to more effectively assist audience volunteers to take on roles they are not trained to perform.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.