Review: With ‘Every Brilliant Thing,' a one-person play, Actors Theatre reaches out, connects in real ways
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By Elizabeth Kramer
"Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Albert Einstein told a reporter from The Saturday Evening Post in 1929.
Hold that thought, because it harmonizes with an idea that shines in an early moment of “Every Brilliant Thing,” Duncan Macmillan’s play written with Jonny Donahoe that opened Wednesday at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Jon Norman Schneider as the storyteller in Actors Theatre of Louisville's “Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe. Photo by Denisha McCauley-Young. Courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell, this one-person play features Jon Norman Schneider, a familiar face to local theatergoers (Actors Theatre’s “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” by A. Rey Pamatmat, 2011; “Recent Alien Abductions” by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, 2017).
However, “one-person” is a bit of a misnomer. Here, Schneider portrays a storyteller (we never know his name) who tells spectators about his first experience with death and, soon after, about how he learned his mother had tried to take her own life. In the process, he names the “brilliant things” that are small parts of life’s highlights. This storyteller also has accomplices. As he recounts his list and memories of loss and love and plays out scenes, he coaxes individual audience members to read list entries and play specific roles — a father, a veterinarian, a teacher, a girlfriend and even himself as a young boy on the way to the hospital. Depending on everyone’s voice to carry throughout the theater — and with masks on — was sometimes a problem as some audience members were difficult to hear.
The play’s blending of improvisational acting into the script has Schneider, from time to time, requesting individuals to play a part and Schneider outlining the aim of their conversation in the upcoming scene or giving them lines or actions to perform verbatim.
In one scene opening night, a man playing the boy repeatedly asked “why” to so many of the father’s explanations. At the end, their chattering echoes that idea that Einstein expressed nearly a century ago when the exasperated father (Schneider) blurts out a response ending with “…our imaginations are what make life bearable.”
What weaves the story are the list of brilliant things that the boy begins when his mother is in the hospital after that first try and Schneider’s exuberance that always feels keen to connect, but not overzealous. (Schneider was coached in the art for this production by Sarah Kirwin.) He gives warmth to the storyteller and is able to improvise his role using gentle encouragement, which was especially on display Wednesday when he cajoled a shy young audience member to play a school counselor who used a sock puppet to help the storyteller express himself.
In another moment, he coached another spectator to play the role of a doctor administering a shot and asked if she had a pen in her pocket to use in the scene. When the spectator pulled out a tampon, the theater filled with laughter, but Schneider, his scene partner and the rest of us rolled with it. The element of surprise became a brilliant thing on this night.
Jon Norman Schneider in Actors Theatre of Louisville's “Every Brilliant Thing.” Photo by Denisha McCauley-Young. Courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.
The play’s nearly 80-minute running time flew by as the storyteller’s journey unfolded with ease. Schneider easily crisscrossed the Bingham Theatre, furnished with an oriental rug, a bench tufted in blue fabric and two chairs, sometimes venturing onto the stairs to reach some of the nearly 35 attending — all while keeping this audience member captivated. The performance speaks also to the work of Powell and Kirwin. Lighting designer Dani Clifford set subtle moods yet allowed audience members to see each other. Sound designer Paul Doyle deftly wove in music tracks so important to the storyteller’s life. That music never overwhelmed the production.
At one point, the storyteller declares, “Suicide is contagious.” But later in his journey, we can imagine, even during this time of a pandemic and discord, renewal and cooperation.
This happens as the story and production flex the muscles of imagination and open the mind to consider the imagination’s power to conceive of and realize possibilities we never thought possible.
“Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe.
Through February 20
Actors Theatre of Louisville, Bingham Theatre
316 W. Main Street.
For more information: www.actorstheatre.org.