Editor’s note: The following article talks about suicide and may be difficult for some readers. If you are having thoughts about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text 741-741, or reach the Department of Mental Health at 1-877-210-8513.
Two actors gush about their rotating roles at the center of the solo tour de force, “Every Brilliant Thing,” coming up at New Stage Theatre. Ray McFarland’s boyish grin spreads often and wide, riding the fervor of his enthusiasm. The gleam in Ali Dinkins’ eyes is constant, fueled from her passion for this production.
This scene may seem unexpected for a contemporary play dealing with the struggles of depression following the attempted suicide of a parent. However, the play’s brilliance beyond its title is what wins them over—the resilience of its life-affirming focus, the humor in its words, the heart of its message and the interactive spirit of its presentation. The show may have a similar effect on audiences, too, they suspect.
“Every Brilliant Thing,” a creation of Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, refers to a list of every wonderful thing that makes life worth living—a list started by a 7-year-old trying to cope with a mother’s chronic depression. The list grows into a tally of life’s small joys, continuing to change a family’s life and bring light and hope to dark spaces.
“I fell in love with it, right as I read it,” McFarland says. All directors and acting teachers he has ever worked with from Jackson to New York City have told him, “Good theater teaches a lesson,” he recounts. “Look for that in what your character says, where the play is going.” He conveyed that message to his own students when he taught at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.
McFarland describes the show as neither preachy nor sad. “Most people think about suicide, ‘Oh God, do I really want to go sit and watch a play about suicide?’” he says. “It’s not a play about suicide, entirely. … It’s how we deal with each other, how we support each other, and I think it’s probably going to open up incredible amounts of conversation.”
“There’s sadness, but there are also places that are hysterically funny, and so tender, warm, reflective—things that everybody is going to identify with,” McFarland adds.
“The child—I or Ray—starts making the list at 7 years old, and the list of every brilliant thing is intended to encourage my/Ray’s mother,” Dinkins explains. “The list has these lovely things that we, as adults, still love. We may not participate in a water fight,” she says with a laugh, “but a water-balloon fight is very fun to watch!”
No. 1 on that list is ice cream, conjuring for Dinkins the mental image of someone with a cone on a sunny day, licking it quickly before it melts. “The (play’s) poster shows ice cream on a rainy day,” she says, shrugging. “Ice cream doesn’t taste any less delicious on a rainy day. We think of hot cocoa next to a fire on a cold day, but they’re both the same kind of comfort, and many things on the list are that kind of comfort.”
The play’s blending of dark and light tones makes the tougher topics more approachable, she says. “It’s written in a way that doesn’t suppress you; it doesn’t depress you,” Dinkins explains. “It lifts you up and helps you to focus on the things that make life worth living.”
“We really do have to appreciate the little things,” she adds. “We do have to live in gratitude. We don’t want to overlook the weeds that are blooming.”
‘The Room Is Just Going to Shimmer’
This highly interactive play in which audience members help tell the story will be staged in the Hewes Room at New Stage Theatre for a more intimate setting that fits the show’s pace. The thrust stage puts viewers closer to the action and allows actors to move freely into the room. The setting’s design, too, aims for audience comfort.
“One of the wonders of this show is the audience interaction,” McFarland says, “and that’s one of the beauties of it. They are performing. … It’s collaboration.” Actors pull people into the show, adding to the energy.
The presentation is also reminiscent of how things were at the original New Stage Theatre, founded in a former church on Gallatin and Hooker streets back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, McFarland adds. “This show, with the audience interaction being such a vital part of it, I think the room is just going to shimmer.”
Dinkins harks back to her days teaching preschool, and what fun it was to see what the children would say. Here, “Yes, they’re adult people and not preschoolers, but the play starts with me being a 7-year-old, and I get to see what comes out of the mouth of another human being,” she says. “I mean, I just can’t wait!”
The play, “brilliantly” written and conceived, Dinkins notes, works as a solo turn suiting any gender, highlighting experiences and situations common to all. “Each person falls in love, has been a child, has experienced fear, has been moved by music,” she says. “The themes of the script are universal.”
New Stage intentionally selected “Every Brilliant Thing” for this season because it addresses mental health, a timely subject, director Francine Thomas Reynolds says. She cites a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey in which an overwhelming majority of people in the United States think the country is experiencing a mental-health crisis.
“Theater can entertain, right? But it’s also a gathering place,” Reynolds says. “What I’m hoping for is this sense of comfort and connection, so there’s this communal experience” with a compelling play about sadness that celebrates life’s joys and reminds people of the power found in connecting with one another.
Mental Health: ‘Opening Up the Dialogue’
New Stage Theatre is partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Mississippi, which will have a table in the lobby with information and resources on hand. Live theater differs from a TV show about the same topic, “because it’s just present,” Reynolds says. “It’s visceral. We know you have emotional responses to things when you’re there in person, whether it’s a football game or a play.
“So, when the topic is something about people’s health, I think it could raise some questions,” she adds. “And I think it’s good to talk about it. … Something like this, that’s intimate and in our Hewes Room, can really open up the dialogue.”
The theater encourages audiences to arrive up to a half-hour prior to “Every Brilliant Thing,” when the house and the concessions open before the show’s start. Because seating is first-come, first-serve and because the play has no intermission, early arrivals allow attendees a chance to have concessions and relax before the show.
Special events during the show’s run include cocktails with the narrator, pre-show activities and a post-show event that NAMI Mississippi sponsors; a post-show event that Mental Health and the Creative Mind Initiative organizes; a “Pay What You Can” matinee on March 15; and a student-rush discount, one hour prior to curtain for any performance.
With Jackson audience favorites McFarland and Dinkins alternating in the solo turn and the level of audience interaction, “Every Brilliant Thing” promises to be a different show with each performance, McFarland explains. The narrator role calls for a flexible actor who can be good at comedy, drama, improv, “and you’ve got to absolutely love performing,” he says.
“If I don’t connect with each and every person in that audience, they’re not getting the show,” he adds. “That’s why it’s important to be able to get out into the house. There’s going to be a lot of movement in this.”
“It’s going to be exhausting to do,” McFarland adds, flashing that grin again. “I can’t wait!”
Performances of “Every Brilliant Thing” begin at 7 p.m Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, March 14 through March 26, 2023. Tickets cost $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors, students and members of the military. For tickets, visit the New Stage box office (1100 Carlisle St., Jackson), check out newstagetheatre.com or call 601-948-3533.