When I first realized I was going to be seeing a show about depression and its effect on a family, a couple of different things came to mind about what I might be in store for. Number one, hoping it wouldn’t reduce me to tears and wishing I had remembered to bring a handkerchief. Number two, that it wouldn’t a be typical performance where those who suffer from depression were shallowly characterized, and the complex problems influencing depression underrated. And number three, wondering what I would say if I did leave the theater frustrated or underwhelmed, and wishing for a do-over.
However I’m pleased to say I had every single one of those worries dismissed, and my enjoyment raised beyond even my own expectations at Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe’s one-actor show Every Brilliant Thing, which was directed by Katie Baldwin Prosise and shown at the Station Theatre in downtown Urbana.(Pictured below, Dockins as “The Boy”)
Part play, part improv act, Every Brilliant Thing tells the story of the journey of one man from childhood to adulthood, and his struggles to cope with his mother’s clinical depression and multiple suicide attempts. As I saw the show on December 1st, I had the privilege to watch Jason Dockins perform and gracefully portray the massive toll depression in a family member, and particularly a parent, takes on those living closest to them.
Handled with more humor, skill, and emotional depth than I think I could express, Dockins impressively conveyed the ups and downs, good times and bad of what it’s like to keep living as fully as you can, even as your mother repeatedly attempts to commit suicide. His solution to try and show her the beauty that exists all around her is to make a list of “every brilliant thing in the world,” whether that’s —and these are real examples— striped socks, the color yellow, or as my card read, ice cream.
While many of us probably know of a book, movie, or play that uses this tactic as a plot carrier, what made Every Brilliant Thing both unique and simply so much fun was each and every audience member was incorporated into the play. We were all given a numbered card with an item, idea, or object written on it, and at multiple times throughout the play we’d have to call out whatever was written. For me, this linked action made me feel connected to every person in the room, and as if we ourselves were all important characters in a story continually being shaped by our own inputs.
Beyond simply having a card, many of us in the audience were also incorporated into the physical story of the play by acting as either Boy’s father (we never learn his name), a school counselor, or his girlfriend and eventual wife. Whether that was planned by the writers or Prosise’s preference, it worked beautifully and is a testament to the play’s structure, Prosise’s vision, and Dockins’ skill to seamlessly work in whatever was thrown at them by the audience.
As the play progressed and the boy lived through his mother’s multiple suicide attempts, met his future wife at the college library and later divorced, and at the play’s end finally attended a support group for those suffering from depression, I was struck by how much I realized I needed to see a play like Every Brilliant Thing. I think what made it so special, and had everyone expressing their enjoyment afterwards, was that it never tried to cover anything up but nor did it descend into a pool of hopelessness and despair. At no point were you allowed to forget the pain and suffocating nature of depression, but in every moment the list was there as a reminder of the world’s constant beauty and how it is available to all of us, no matter how far gone things feel.
(William Anthony Sebastian Rose II — pictured left, performing on even dates — and Jason Dockins — pictured right, performing on odd dates)
In a year that has experienced its own ups and down, good and bad times, Every Brilliant Thing gave all of us ninety minutes to laugh, feel connected, and as someone who doesn’t suffer from depression but knows those who do, understand if just a little more the all-encompassing struggle to fight something that never leaves you.
Every Brilliant Thing did not offer a clear-cut solution on how to cope with depression, and nor did it end with a simple way forward for the Boy’s struggle with his own depression. In the end all it really asked us to do was listen and be present as we became part of the Boy’s journey with our own stories, and as we left I thought if we were able to carry that ability to listen into the lives of those we meet everyday, we’d also be able to find and create our own list of brilliant things.
Every Brilliant Thing will be playing at the Station Theatre in Urbana December 7-11th and 14th-17th, with William Anthony Sebastian Rose II featuring on all even show dates and Jason Dockins featuring on all odd show dates. All shows will take place at 8pm, and tickets can be reserved at 217.384.4000 or online.
All images by Scott Wells…
Scott is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Illinois. He has been a photographer and writer for Smile Politely since March of 2015.