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'Every Brilliant Thing' approaches suicide with touching comic sincerity

'Every Brilliant Thing' approaches suicide with touching comic sincerity
Jonny Donahoe stars in the Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company production of "Every Brilliant Thing" at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. (Micheala Bodlovic)

Something miraculous happens in "Every Brilliant Thing." Something you might want to include on your own list of life-enhancing pleasures should you follow the lead of the protagonist, who inventories all that makes the world worthwhile for him.

First produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company at Britain's Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013, this utterly charming solo performance piece was broadcast on HBO in December. But the tender magic of this hour-long show is best experienced live.

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The audience enters the Edye, the intimate venue at Santa Monica's Broad Stage, as an anonymous crowd and leaves a friendly troupe, theatrical comrades, an ad hoc ensemble united by a total stranger's story.

Audience participation is integral to "Every Brilliant Thing," but don't worry about making a fool of yourself. This is a come-as-you-are performance. The more rough-hewn your acting, the more humanly effective.

Jonny Donahoe, the British comedian, writer and performer, serves as narrative ringleader and occasionally the protagonist. He's an amiable Everyman, with bright eyes, a round face and the casual attire of a theater buff who has just ride-shared his way over from Silver Lake. Before the show begins, he whispers instructions to select seated audience members with the casual stealth of a guy plotting his girlfriend's surprise party.

One could easily mistake star for stage manager. Donahoe's very ordinariness turns out to be one of his most extraordinary gifts.

Theatergoers are given numbered items to call out (ice cream, water fights, staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV). The list, we soon learn, is born out of a child's fantasy of rescuing his mother from her suicidal depression.

There are so many reasons to want to live, the son reasons, if only her clouded mind could be awakened to everyday delights.

Mental illness and its impact on a family, mortality and existential despondency are central themes. These are heavy subjects but the approach is frolicsome.

Someone in the audience is recruited to perform the role of a veterinarian tasked with euthanizing the unnamed character's beloved dog (a borrowed jacket stands in for the ailing canine). "And that was my experience of death," Donahoe narrates to us after the goofy-sad reenactment. "A loved one becoming an object."

An audience member is invited to play the baffled youngster in one of the show's most poignant moments. The scene depicts the 7-year-old learning from his father that his mother is in the hospital after trying to hurt herself. "Why?" is the only word the accidental actor is permitted to say — a repetition that makes the ungraspable reality heartbreakingly clear.

The same audience member plays the father in a twist on this traumatic scene that opens up yet another perspective.  He's called upon later on to make a toast at his now adult son's wedding. The game-like quality of the performance changes our relationship to the characters and their sadness, which sneaks up on us as we're giggling along with the new stage dynamics.

"Every Brilliant Thing" is adapted from the short story "Sleeve Notes" by Duncan Macmillan, who wrote the stage version with Donahoe. Record albums and the information they include about artists prove to be another escape for a son baffled by the extreme mood swings of his mother. The production, directed with relaxed buoyancy by George Perrin, occasionally takes a musical turn, with the son sharing fragments of songs that brought him through adolescence to adulthood.

There's no daylight between Donahoe (who has a captivating singing voice) and the son whose story he's re-creating. His awkwardness is the character's awkwardness. His joy the character's joy. The stories he tells seem convincingly autobiographical. It was only when the programs were distributed after the show that I understood that what I had just witnessed wasn't unfiltered life but a performance crafted from the experience of canny artists. This naiveté of mine was a testament to the effectiveness of the spell that was cast.

Audience members from Friday night's opening also deserve to be lavished with praise. One woman, asked to play the boy's school counselor, was amenable to taking off her sock to use as a therapeutic sock puppet. Even more impressive was the empathy she radiated.

Another spectator beautifully stepped into the role of the protagonist's great love, Sam. The couple's touchingly bumbling meet-cute at the library carried an unexpected emotional weight. But then it all began to make sense. After growing up in the shadow of a psychologically precarious mother, this young man could hardly believe the number of brilliant new things this steady, affectionate woman was eager to contribute to his happy list.

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Sincere but not sentimental, "Every Brilliant Thing" doesn't candy-coat the subject of suicide and family survival.  But it does shine gentle theatrical light on the way sweetness and sorrow are both magnified by tragedy.

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'Every Brilliant Thing'

Where: The Edye at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; ends Feb. 12

Tickets: Start at $45

Information: (310) 434-3200 or www.thebroadstage.com

Running time: 1 hour

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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