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‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at Windy City Playhouse should top your list of plays to see

A number of Chicago premieres — Duncan Macmilan’s breathtaking work among them — are suddenly reminding us to take stock of joy and possibility and human kindness.

Rebecca Spence stars in “Every Brilliant Thing” at  Windy City Playhouse.
Rebecca Spence stars in “Every Brilliant Thing” at Windy City Playhouse.
Michael Brosilow

The American theater is a slow-moving beast. The plays that are onstage in Chicago now, at the start of the 2019-20 season, were mostly announced months ago. Well before those season announcements, decisions were made and contracts were signed by various theaters, rarely in consultation with one another.

The scripts themselves, most of them, were frozen by their writers months or years or centuries earlier. Unlike late-night talk shows or your favorite podcasts, the theater as it’s commonly practiced is ill-equipped to respond to current events.

And yet there are times when, in spite of all the varied moving parts, a series of unrelated productions around the city all seem to be in conversation with one another, speaking directly to — or telling us something about — our collective mood.

One such convergence is taking place right now. At a moment when the news cycle is moving at breakneck speed, when nerves are frazzled and tensions are high and a self-help author is credibly running for president by talking about “dark psychic forces” on the debate stage, a number of Chicago premieres are suddenly reminding us to take stock of joy and possibility and human kindness.

Victory Gardens has “Tiny Beautiful Things,” the unexpectedly breathtaking stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s humanist advice columns. At Shattered Globe Theatre, the comedy “Be Here Now” suggests that finding room for bliss could improve your quality of life even if it’s literally killing you. In the thoroughly charming “Midsummer (A Play with Songs)” at the Greenhouse Theater Center, two romance-resistant cynics forced together by circumstance reluctantly open their hearts to the prospect of happiness. (And while it’s not new to Chicago, Drury Lane has a top-notch revival of the hope-fueled musical “The Color Purple” to remind us to “look what God has done.”)

Add to the list Windy City Playhouse’s “Every Brilliant Thing,” which happens to be propelled by the idea of making a list of all of life’s greatest and simplest pleasures — a list its maker begins as a catalog of reasons to go on living.

Windy City Playhouse’s “Every Brilliant Thing,” starring Rebecca Spence, is propelled by the idea of making a list of all of life’s greatest and simplest pleasures — a list its maker begins as a catalog of reasons to go on living.
Windy City Playhouse’s “Every Brilliant Thing,” starring Rebecca Spence, is propelled by the idea of making a list of all of life’s greatest and simplest pleasures — a list its maker begins as a catalog of reasons to go on living.
Michael Brosilow

Penned by the English writer Duncan Macmillan, “Every Brilliant Thing” is a solo performance, inasmuch as there’s only one professional actor employed. (More on that in a moment.) The play’s narrator is an only child who starts writing the list of “brilliant things” at age 7, while waiting in the lobby of a hospital where his mother has been admitted following a suicide attempt.

The list makes a certain amount of childlike sense; if you were told at such a young age that your mother couldn’t find any reasons to enjoy life, you could almost see yourself naively trying to help. (First entry on the list: “ice cream.”)

Macmillan’s script was originally performed — at the Edinburgh festival and later in London and Off Broadway in New York — by British comedian Jonny Donahoe. But it’s structured so that it can accommodate an actor of any gender or type, so long as they can guide an audience through a modicum of participation.

In Windy City Playhouse’s production, which inaugurates a second performance space at the company’s Motor Row satellite location, Rebecca Spence is our warm and encouraging guide. Spence greets visitors on their way into WCP’s newest venue, two floors up from the South Michigan Avenue space where the theater has transferred its long-running immersive production “Southern Gothic.”

The actress hands most audience members a talisman of some kind, with a number and a brilliant thing, asking us to shout out our entry when our number is called. (On opening night, I was assigned number six: “Rollercoasters.”)

A handful of audience members will be asked to participate a little more directly; I hate to say too much, but squeamish ticket holders can opt out.

The house lights remain up throughout Spence’s masterful performance; in fact, the house lights are the main element of Scott Davis’s sneakily effective production design.

What may sound like a mawkish premise somehow becomes, in the redistribution of its telling, an impressively collective story. The more Spence and Macmillan bring the audience into the recounting — while simultaneously leaving us out of the scariest parts of improvisation — the more we’re charmed by the endeavor as a whole. If we were keeping a list like the one this show’s protagonist does, “Every Brilliant Thing” would earn a spot.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.