Kids with a parent who is living with a mental illness diagnosis develop an intriguing set of social skills. They quickly intuit to whom they can confide, how to disappear into the woodwork during challenging moments, and how to fend for themselves if need be. They also learn how to love with a whole albeit broken heart. Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan captures those highs and lows in a captivating one-actor show, produced by Second Generation Theatre and onstage now to March 18 at Shea’s Smith Theatre.
Kevin Craig is the young man who is reflecting on his life through the lens of his mother’s suicide attempts; the first time is when he was seven. His little boy wisdom includes the thought that perhaps he’s to blame for his mother’s mental state, so he figures he can also help save her life. He decides to make her a list of “every brilliant thing” that makes life worth living. Topping the list, of course, is ice cream and he moves through the everyday things that can spark a smile. His emphasis is more on the experience and not material things, and some are esoteric and thought-provoking. Like his fascination with like #521 – “the word plinth.” When his mom makes another attempt 10 years later, he comes back to the list and it grows and becomes his touchstone, his comfort object. He continues to build the list throughout his life, on and off, in his own high moments and low moments.
Craig is magnificent. He’s funny, he’s wistful, he sprints around the stage like a puppy ready to play, he’s a hoot. His improv skills – no doubt honed by director Charmagne Chi in an amazing debut – are stellar and so smooth as he chats with the audience and engages the whole house in his deeply personal story. He even pulled yours truly into a moment, not once but twice. (Sidebar: if you ever wondered if actors curry favor with reviewers to court a better review, that’s a big no. I mean…he called me old – twice! – in front of 100 people and well, so what if I am, but geez. And yet, I love him.) His more pensive, reflective moments still convey an energy and charm.
This is a charming, poignant, and engaging hour of theatre. While it’s primarily Craig on stage, he’s also in the audience a lot and audience members are brought to the stage for improv mini roles that are endearing and funny. One audience member is picked to be Mrs. Patterson, his elementary school counselor who speaks to troubled kids through a sock puppet. Yes, an audience member is charged with removing her sock on stage to embrace this important role.
This work is a substantial departure from MacMillan’s other play recently on the Buffalo boards. His People, Places, and Things reprised by D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre earlier this year is a dark and authentic look substance abuse disorder and one woman’s journey to wellness. While this show has its somber backstory, the focus is more on joy and appreciation for things large and small that keep us going.
The Second Generation team wisely engaged local agencies to table in the compact lobby bar and share resources. Representatives from these agencies also participate in Thursday post-show talkbacks. Full disclosure: when I’m not sitting in a theatre, I’m the Sr. Manager of Public Relations for Spectrum Health and Human Services, one of the sponsors of this outstanding production. I love that this company took a risk on this production: its content is important and the presentation is well executed. Or in the words of author Margaret Atwood, “Hope is part of the human toolkit, along with the arts.”
The show is a fast-paced 60 minutes, no intermission, and you’ll leave with a tug in your heart for individuals who grapple with mental health issues every day…and perhaps a smile on your face for the WNY artistic community that reminds us that inspiration, help, and hope is all around us. Check out https://secondgenerationtheatre.com/ for tickets.
Also – sometimes even a million brilliant things aren’t enough. If you or someone you love is having suicidal ideations, call 988 for immediate intervention, or Spectrum Health’s 24/7 Help Line at 716 710 5172 or Crisis Services at 716 834 3131. There is always someone here for you.