Jon Norman Schneider. Photo: Denisha McCauley-Young

Every Brilliant Thing

By Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell

A review by Ben Gierhart

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Ben Gierhart. All rights reserved.

“If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.” The Storyteller (Jon Norman Schneider) – the one traditional actor on stage for Actors Theatre’s production of Every Brilliant Thing – utters this line. The weight of this sentiment can be felt throughout the entirety of the play but also in each of us. Who hasn’t felt this way at least once over the last two years?

Every Brilliant Thing is Actors’ first attempt at producing something akin to what audiences saw before the pandemic began – it’s their first fully live and in-person production with a two-week run in almost two years – but what is more striking is how deliberate this selection was, how emblematic it is of the company’s new mission statement and leadership, and how very informed by and poignant because of the pandemic it feels.

The story is fairly straightforward. The Storyteller recounts a time from their childhood when their mother attempted suicide which causes The Storyteller to begin generating a list of Every Brilliant Thing. The task begins innocently enough, but as The Storyteller becomes more desperate in their attempts to convince their mother to quell her suicidal ideation, and as they begin to question their own relationship with death and mortality, it becomes an obsession. By the end of the play, the list is one million items long.

All of this sounds like quite the somber affair – and it has its moments – but it would be a disservice to depict it that way. Every Brilliant Thing, at its core, is literally an enumeration of the small things that make life worth living, the things that are difficult to articulate and therefore taken for granted. Examples include “Skinny dipping,” “Really good oranges,” and even more specific ones like “Seeing someone make it onto the train just as the doors are closing, making eye contact, and sharing in this little victory.”

Its structure is unique, inviting audience participation in semi-scripted ways as well as with pure improv and sanitized microphones. Cards with some of the Brilliant Things listed on them are handed out before the play begins. When The Storyteller calls out the corresponding number, the audience member with the card then loudly reads out what’s on it. Sometimes The Storyteller enlists the help of an audience member to play another character in the story, such as their father, their veterinarian, or even a beloved childhood teacher.

Since all of this utilizes what is essentially a mixed bag of talent from the audience, The Storyteller must be poised, patient, and in control at all times. Schneider, aided by Improv Coach Sarah Kirwin, does an excellent job at this, especially when they have to coax some of the shyer audience members. What is achieved by these tactics is where the production truly shines. Live theater is something that has been nearly impossible during the pandemic, so what better way to welcome it back than by capitalizing on the things that theater can do that no other medium can? 

One of the characters The Storyteller asks an audience member to play is Sam, a love interest. This play nurtures connection and fosters an environment where we all work together on a problem, and that is no more true than with Sam who is someone who loves The Storyteller very much and someone who doesn’t know how to help. Most people can relate. By inviting the audience into the story this way, The Storyteller’s struggles more readily mirror our own and their goals become ours.

Actors Theatre is coming out of the pandemic seemingly ready to address the needs of a community that has been put through the worst collective trauma the world has seen in generations, and it all begins with this production of Every Brilliant Thing.

Every Brilliant Thing

February 9 – 20, 2022

Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
For tickets visit Actors Theatre 

Ben Gierhart is a writer and theater artist based in Louisville, KY. He writes everything from essays, plays, articles, comic book scripts and short stories, but if you want even more, check him out on Twitter (@LunarCrescendo) and Facebook (Ben Gierhart – Writer/Theater Artist)!