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SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Every Brilliant Thing,” running through March 31, cuts to the quick, but its blend of humor and generosity makes you smile from start to finish. The show sweeps you up in its teasing, gentle humor and makes us part of the story by giving speaking parts to randomly selected audience members. It leaves you with a sense of relief in the knowledge that you’re not alone — not in your sorrows, your struggles, your mistakes or your idiosyncratic comforts.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of The Narrator (Adrianne Krstansky). She has spent her life, on and off, compiling a list of all the things that are “genuinely wonderful and life-affirming,” which means — and she takes pains to point this out — “not too material items.”
What heads the list? Simple pleasures: “Ice cream,” “Staying up past our bedtime and being allowed to watch TV,” “Things with stripes.” The Narrator began the list at the age of 8, after her mother’s suicide attempt. It’s a love letter, in a way, and a way of trying to keep her mother interested and engaged in living. After all, who could possibly want to end their existence when there are “things with stripes” to be enjoyed?
The list is put away for years on end, only to be rediscovered from time to time when Mom makes a new attempt at suicide or other major life events happen. Falling in love, for example: After meeting “Sam” at the library during her college years, The Narrator inadvertently shares her list with him, and his response seals their growing attraction. As time goes by and The Narrator matures, the list grows to include items like “Deciding you’re not too old to climb trees,” “People who can’t sing but either don’t know or don’t care” and “The prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler.”
The Narrator’s list is cute, and could end up drenched in syrup except for the way it’s written in response both to life’s happy passages and its darker chapters. We’re not hearing about the exploits of a captain of industry or a superhero; The Narrator is as flawed and uncertain as any of us. The list might as well be an entry in its own pages, because it gives The Narrator a way to focus her attention and defuse “that trapdoor feeling” that overcomes her at times of suffocating anxiety. Eventually, it becomes self-fulfilling ambition — the poor (or, at least, average) person’s version of Mount Everest.
Completing the list is an impossible task, for the delightful reason that the more you look for life’s sustaining pleasures, the more of them you’ll find. But you can set a number — a high, ambitious number, say a million — and strive to reach it. By the time you get there, as The Narrator does, you may find your list of reminders about life’s many small gifts adds up to something larger and more meaningful than any number.
From time to time, The Narrator calls on audience members to recite items from the list. (The public is also encouraged to write down their own additions after the play, using provided pens and paper in the lobby.) Krstansky feels out the people present in the room to find scene partners she’ll have chemistry with. One plays a veterinarian; another plays a school counselor; yet another plays “Sam.”
Plays with audience participation are often awkward and sometimes feel a little cruel. Not everyone wants to be part of a show, and it can feel like a breach of an unspoken contract between performers and audience members to rope people in and make them the focus of everybody in the room. “Every Brilliant Thing” pulls off the trick of making our participation into a benefit, rather than a risk, for two smartly deployed reasons: First, those who participate are approached beforehand, so there are no surprises. (It’s OK! There’s no pressure. You can safely attend this one.) Second, Krstansky, working under the direction of Marianna Bassham, is a radiant presence: personable, instantly trustworthy, in control of the room and yet, when it’s called for, courageously vulnerable. She’s a marvelous storyteller, and she has terrific material to work with.
Playwright Duncan MacMillan, who wrote the show with stand-up comic Jonny Donahoe, deliberately created a one-actor theater piece that could readily be adapted for a male or female performer and adjusted to fit any given time and place. The universality of the play’s themes — angst, family conflict, the fear of being an inadequate spouse or partner, time’s inexorable passage, and inevitable loss — intersect seamlessly with its democratic approach. Should you ever find yourself phoning up an old teacher late at night to seek comfort from her sock puppet, you can take heart in knowing that even here, at such a nadir, you’re not alone.
“Every Brilliant Thing” continues through March 31 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
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