‘Every Brilliant Thing’ brings a joyful interaction between audience and performer
The List begins with Number One: Ice Cream, and ends with Number One Million: Listening to a Record for the First Time. In between lies everything worth saving.
The last play of Millbrook’s 56th Season (and what a season it’s been!) is “Every Brilliant Thing,” an immersive theatre piece in which the “fourth wall” that traditionally separates players from audience disappears, allowing creative collaboration – and often spontaneous improvisation – as the audience helps create the play they are watching.
Walking into the Cabaret we see a bare-bones set painted the same dark color as the seating area, which defines it not as a stage set but as an extension of the room.
As Shannon Agnew, narrator of the play, circulates among the tables, giving us each a numbered piece of The List and gently enrolling us in the coming experience, she makes the point that “This is all of our space, not just mine.” There is a large blackboard on the back wall, with piles of colored chalk conveniently provided, and we are invited to come forward to add our own joyful piece to those already accumulating on the board: “blueberry pie,” “smell of a campfire,” “married 16 years to my beautiful wife,” “a tomato sandwich.”
By the time Shannon slips almost imperceptibly into the play itself, we have begun to reflect, as the program notes put it, on “what brings us joy and what brilliant things sustain our lives?”
The narrator’s story and that of The List evolve at the same time. She is seven when, shut out by both parents from an event she can’t understand her mother’s attempted suicide, she begins recording all the things she loves in a poignant attempt to keep her mother alive.
The List is placed on her mother’s pillow, read out loud to her mother’s back, left as post-it notes around the house or as messages on the answering machine, carved into fruit and crusts of bread. (As The List grows larger, members of the audience are asked to read their assigned numbered pieces aloud; mine was Number 324: Nina Simone’s Voice, carved into a baguette.)
The mother, obviously unable to respond, corrects the narrator’s spelling, leaves the room, returns the post-it notes, turns her back. Frustrated, the narrator mails The List to her mother anonymously in her first week of college and then slips her own copy between the pages of a book in an effort to forget.
But as our voices in the room continue calling out a growing menu of items, it becomes clear that The List is irrepressible. Early in the play, the narrator creates a dialogue with her father, who tells her that “our imaginations are what make life bearable… because in order to live in the present we have to be able to imagine a future that will be better than the past… that’s what hope is, and without hope we couldn’t go on.”
Bouncing sometimes wildly between the highs of love and the lows of loss, the narrator discovers as life continues that hope can appear depressingly elusive. She has boxed up The List and thrown it away. But a series of fortunate turns brings her finally to us, to the audience, to her “support group,” where she is able to find the strength to finish The List, which we understand now is a living act of imagination that can change the way we ourselves see the world.
Shannon Agnew, who has become a beloved fixture at Millbrook and is now serving as an Artistic Associate, is a wonder to watch.
She conveys the delight and confusion of a child, the selfish cruelty of an adolescent, the
gleeful wonder of a college student falling in love, and the tentative explorations of a woman gradually coming into her own, all with just the right mix of bravery and vulnerability.
And she navigates smoothly the challenges of what can be a tricky role presenting the narrator’s story while at the same time being prepared for what can sometimes be unexpected participation from the audience. The night I attended, it was clear that Shannon welcomed spontaneity, while being flexible enough to steer the play in the right direction should it threaten to go off the rails, and that she was able to find opportunities for humor throughout. We always felt we were in good hands.
This play is not a downer. Far from it.
Again, from the program notes, “Being here for this performance means you are in a safe space of sharing, connection, and community.” This is what I took away: In addition to hope, the play offers another effective antidote to despair and isolation the consolations of community, acted out by all of us in living color for the space of this performance at our own Millbrook Cabaret. It’s a brilliant thing.
Karen Elias lives in Swissdale. She taught English for more than 30 years, most recently at Lock Haven University and Penn College.