Asheville – Every Brilliant Thing is an emotional roller coaster of a one-woman show, but that one woman is Erin McCarson. Utilizing her seasoned skills in both drama and comedy, she conducts the ride beautifully. Applying just the right amount of levity as we are coming off a hairpin turn of sorrow and taking us to joyous heights before dropping us once again into the turmoil of this fictional memoir.
Playwright Duncan Macmillan wrote the impressively moving work in an effort to tell others, “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on.”
Exploring themes of depression and the desire to end one’s own life, McCarson, as “Narrator,” dexterously embodies our main character from precocious child to confused and struggling adult. Injecting charisma, charm, and silliness while plucking and pulling at our heartstrings like a harp virtuoso.
Not a serious, sedate “chamber music” harpist, though. No, she is more akin to Harpo Marx. Always delighting us with the unanticipated. And like the iconic silent clown, McCarson spent the evening drawing others into the narrative when they least expected it.
Audience participation is at the core of this production, with members taking on the roles of various people in the “Narrator’s” life. That fundamental device makes each performance unique and could derail a less formidable actor.
Those interactions also make an already intimate show feel more personal to each individual in attendance.
That intimacy is woven not only through McCarson’s enigmatic yet transparent performance but also through the impressively effective minimalist set designed by director Hannah Williams.
Williams expanded on the choices: “It was important to me that the world feel real, accessible, and honest. I wanted everyone to feel included in the narrator’s story from the moment they entered the building. I didn’t want it to feel like an actor was in front of them putting on a show. I wanted there to be a fresh layer of honesty that brought comfort to the audience to listen and engage with the story as if they were listening to an old friend.”
Also crucial was the lighting. Never one to let a challenge stop him, Jason Williams’ inventive work built ambiance, heightened gut-wrenching moments, and creatively illuminated the theater-in-the-round audience, a particularly important aspect of this show.
While the content is cavernously deep at times, McCarson and stage manager Dakota Mann guided us through with whimsy and tenderness. Even those audience members who were brought into the story as performers were encouraged with compassion. This was not a situation where they could fail, and the two rehearsals I attended highlighted her quick thinking and consummate improvisational intuition.
This is the only version I have seen of Duncan Macmillan’s play, but I believe his goals were accomplished with grace, humor, and humanity. I left feeling all those things he hoped for when he said, “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on.”
In a society where we have gone from celebrating differences to using them as weapons, where we belittle and demonize mental illness rather than humanize and empathize, his words seem more important now than ever.
Every Brilliant Thing runs from August 4th through 20th at Haywood Regional Arts Theatre in Waynesville, NC, with 7:30 p.m. performances on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. matinees on Sundays.
With so much audience participation, every show will be a little different, but having seen it twice already, I can also assure you that every show will also be “Brilliant.”