ArtsATL Review: Horizon’s EVERY BRILLIANT THING a perfect play for a pandemic moment
February 11th, 2022
JIM FARMER • FEBRUARY 10, 2022
Humor against the backdrop of depression may sound like an uneasy pairing, but the play Every Brilliant Thing walks that fine line quite ably. Running through Feb. 27 at Horizon Theatre, it’s a production with a surprising amount of ambition and warmth.
It’s also the 38th season opener for the Little Five Points playhouse, which has not staged a full show since early 2020.
Even before the curtain speech, O’Neil Delapenha, who serves as the Narrator of Every Brilliant Thing, mixes and mingles with the crowd and hands almost everyone inside at least one numbered slip of paper with text that he explains will be used throughout the evening. Then we quickly learn his story. At the young age of 7, his father takes him to a hospital where he learns that his mother has made a suicide attempt. This is new territory for the boy — his only brush with death/near death has been when a beloved family dog had to be put to sleep.
Soon after, as a coping mechanism, he begins writing a list of everything that makes life worth living — beginning with ice cream, water fights, and staying up past bedtime and being allowed to watch TV. From time to time, he’ll call out a number on his list, and an audience member will respond with what that number represents. Patrons also perform as secondary characters such as Dad, Vet and a Lecturer.
As he grows older and becomes a young adult, eventually going to college and later marrying, he continues the list while holding in his anger and trying to understand his mother and her unhappiness. Throughout his life, he has to deal with his highs and lows of her bouts of depression.
Directed by Jeff Adler, Horizon Theatre’s co-artistic director, Every Brilliant Thing covers heavy material, yet — over the course of its 80-minute show run, sans an intermission — manages to be unexpectedly funny.
Because of Covid-19, Adler has three performers lined up for the lead role. Shelby Hofer and Megan Hayes are alternating performances with Delapenha, and it would be interesting to see how differently each approach the material. The playwrights have encouraged the role to be played by anyone — any sex, race or age.
Having seen Delapenha, however, it would be hard to imagine how anyone else can top his performance. A frequent actor and director at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company and the founder of Black Theatre Artists of Atlanta, he’s affable, relaxed and quick-witted, with several moments of improvisation. It’s a very physical role, too — the actor is almost constantly in motion, interacting with the patrons, singing more than a few times and at one point high fiving/fisting everyone in the audience.
Yet the actor isn’t afraid to reveal his vulnerable side as he is making sense of his mother’s sadness and trying to forge ahead with his own life. Mental illness is a central theme here, and the central character’s battles with his mother take a toll, even when he keeps a game face.
What began as a short story by English playwright Duncan Macmillan became, with the help of Irish comedian Jonny Donahoe, a one-person show that debuted in 2013 at the Ludlow Fringe Festival. After an off-Broadway bow the next year, it began playing around the world and was also adapted by HBO. It’s easy to see how the production has caught on with audiences and theater companies.
Every Brilliant Thing is a spare production with an intentionally threadbare set. Scenic and property designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay hang items from the ceiling (picture frames, lamps, some albums), sprinkle books and various props throughout the audience and make the Narrator’s distributed numbers look authentic, like they could actually have been written by a child, often in crayon and on various forms of paper.
Truth be told, as enjoyable as the production is, Every Brilliant Thing starts to run out of steam a bit near the end, feeling a little repetitive and drawn out. Yet it never wears out its welcome. While part of the play is indeed quite sad, Macmillan and Donahoe manage to keep it engaging and hopeful. Under Adler’s direction, actor Delapenha finds just the right tone in his performance.
As I was inside the theater before the show began, I realized I had not seen a production at Horizon since Once in early 2020. Further reality set in as I realized that no one had seen a production at Horizon since then. Covid has wreaked havoc on theater companies, some of whom have resorted to streaming shows while others have held off until they felt comfortable enough again mounting live work. Horizon has been busy with some Zoom projects the last few years but has not staged any productions.
During Omicron, when some theater companies aren’t even requiring vaccinations, Horizon deserves much credit for presenting a scaled-down, socially distant production. My audience numbered about 50 people, distanced and masked, with vaccinations checked at the door, and everyone seemed to feel relaxed and secure.
Horizon’s new play may not be brilliant as its title suggests, but it’s certainly crowd-pleasing and thought-provoking. It seems — in many ways — a perfect show to stage at this time.
Horizon Theatre requires masks and proof of vaccination or negative PCR test within 48 hours.