Most of the one-man shows I can think of off the top of my head are either historical – the actor playing someone from the past, talking about their life – or call for the actor to play a ton of roles, usually frenetically or by using silly voices. There are a few exceptions, but I hear “one-man show” and I’m immediately nervous. If that had stopped me from seeing Every Brilliant Thing, I’d have missed out on something really special.
A boy’s (Joel Ripka) mother attempts suicide; he can’t understand why, so he begins making a list of brilliant things to make her want to stay in the world – ice cream, water fights, things with stripes. As the boy grows, the list does, and the reasons behind the list change as well.
The show is scripted, but relies heavily on audience participation and has some improvisation elements – the fact that it will be a different show every night only adds to its charm. Audience members are asked to play characters in the man’s life, to read out items on the list, to provide items for the memories – and this could go very, very wrong (I’ve seen that happen, when an audience member didn’t want to be involved with a production). Somehow, this show brought everyone in the audience together enough that we were comfortable and engaged; it felt like we were family. We wanted to hear the story and we knew, in order to do that, we all needed to succeed.
It takes a special actor to hold an audience on his own, and Ripka is special. He had our complete attention from the moment he took the stage. He was personable and relatable; he was just as at ease with humor as he was with the pain of the story (for all of the humor in the piece, at the core is the fact that the list came about because his mother was suicidal). He was gentle and kind with the audience members he was working with, which is vital for a show with this much participation. This show would have fallen flat with an actor who couldn’t carry everything off perfectly; Ripka (with Daniel Elihu Kramer’s keen direction) did it all, and made it look easy.
There are deep truths in this show, ones that hit home with me (and, from what I could tell, many other audience members as well.) I watched most of it through tears. “If you live a full life, and you get to the end of it without ever feeling depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention,” the man tells us, and the honesty in this statement took my breath away. This is an intense world we live in; most of us struggle – and if we don’t, we know people who do. The heart in this show brings strangers together and shows us light in the darkness – and you need to experience that. I can’t recommend this show highly enough.
“Every Brilliant Thing,” Chester Theatre Company, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, Mass., through August 13, $37.50-$10, Run time: 1 hour and 10 minutes, chestertheatre.org