Everyone needs something to live for. Some of us have a harder time finding it than others. Much harder. So … if you’re a young child and your mom has just tried to kill herself, what can you do about it?
Well, you could give her a list of everything that makes the world beautiful and life worth living:
1.) Ice cream.
2.) Water fights.
3.) Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.
“All things that, at seven, I thought were really good, but not necessarily things Mom would agree with.”
So says the unnamed Narrator — played by the immensely personable Joel Ripka — in Every Brilliant Thing, at Chester Theatre Company. Its wrenching subject is suicide, but there’s not a scrap of preachiness or sentimentality in it. In fact, it’s one of the funniest plays of the season, and at the same time one of the most heartfelt.
From what I knew in advance, I was skeptical. A one-person show with audience participation – in this case, patrons given words or phrases which they are to shout out on cue. A gimmick. But, it turns out, a gimmick that not only works, but goes far beyond mere gimmickry.
The performance begins as expected. As my companion and I take our seats in the theater — configured in-the-round for this show — we are handed cards bearing a number and a word. Mine is 999, Sunlight, and hers is 1,006, Surprises.
Ripka is already in the house, chatting easily with folks, setting a friendly, informal tone from the start. Then, with no dimming of the lights, he begins.
“The list began after her first attempt. A list of everything brilliant about the world.” As he says each number, people speak up from all parts of the auditorium.
4.) The color yellow.
5.) Things with stripes.
7.) People falling over.
Then he starts bringing audience members onto the stage to play roles in his story. Oh no, I think, audience onstage, the magician’s captive stooges, embarrassed and self-conscious. And they are at first, but Ripka is so gracious and disarming that brilliant things start to happen.
He asks a woman to play the school counselor, and she agrees. Then he has her take off one of her socks and put it on her hand to make a puppet. And she does. Then he asks her questions that have no cue cards — “What is your puppet’s name?” — and she improvises the answers as he tells her how sad and scared he is about his mom.
This kind of unrehearsed interplay takes a very special kind of performer. Not just to persuade people to play along, but to make these vignettes touching, meaningful and, yes, funny, at times thanks to the recruits’ responses.
“What are you reading?” He asks. She looks at the cover.
“What’s it about?”
“Um… The middle of March?”
Ripka has a gift for congeniality. You really want to help him tell this story in this eccentric way. He’s not a big man, which is an asset. It helps him pull off the little-boy segments and keeps him from intimidating his volunteer cast-mates – whom he later includes in the curtain call.
The list continues.
24.) Spaghetti Bolognese.
25.) Wearing a cape.
26.) Peeing in the sea and nobody knows.
The boy grows up, gets married, the list keeps growing, the numbers ascending.
315.) The smell of old books.
761.) Deciding you’re not too old to climb trees. (My favorite, since it was one of the key epiphanies of my childhood.)
The issue of suicide is never far away, nor is the Narrator’s fear for his mother’s life. An inspired moment embodying the manic phase of the depressive cycle starts off thrilling and ends up shattered. There’s the occasional statistic (“Every time a celebrity takes their own life there is a spike in the number of suicides”) but this is no disease-of-the-week show, and it always comes back to the Narrator’s own story.
“It’s common for the children of suicides to blame themselves. It’s natural. 999.”
My turn. “Sunlight.”
Yes, it’s a gimmick, but such a fresh and inventive approach to audience involvement that Ripka and director Daniel Elihu Kramer not only earn our willing participation, they create a tangible sense of common endeavor, even community. And that’s something worth living for.
Through Aug. 13, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester. Tickets (413) 354-7771 or chestertheatre.tix.com.
Photos by Elizabeth Solaka
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and valleyadvocate.com/author/chris-rohmann.