By Dottie Ashley

Although a few bars of Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears,” were played near the beginning of the play “Every Brilliant Thing,” only laughter filled the packed Woolfe Street Playhouse at the one-man show, in spite its harrowing themes of depression and suicide.

 

“Every Brilliant Thing,” co-written by the energetic actor Jonny Donahoe and Duncan Macmillan, has toured the world as a production of the Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company of England. One can see why the subject matter crosses geographic and cultural lines; as the New York Times noted recently, suicides have reached a high not seen in many decades in the United States alone.

But when the jolly, slightly overweight Donahoe, in wrinkled Bermuda shorts, a navy shirt and Reeboks, hops into the middle of a created stage-in-the-round, an optimistic mood fills the space — even when he explains his attempt to overcome his depression, caused by his mother’s multiple attempts of suicide. These started when he was only seven and gradually caused him to withdraw from others. His answer was to make a list of what he termed “brilliant life-affirming things” that occur often every day, but which we overlook, such as “ ice cream” and “the color yellow” and then progressing to the “Star Trek” series, to “a friend you can truly confide in,” to “hair-dressers who actually do what you ask.”

I must say, I and others were on the verge of tears when, in the initial scene, Donahoe asked for audience participation and approached a handsome young man wearing a jacket (one of the few in the casually-attired audience), asking if he could borrow it for a moment. The man immediately relinquished his jacket to the actor, who then used it to explain his first encounter with death, when a very young child. By skillfully placing the jacket over his outstretched arms, Donahoe asked us to imagine that the black jacket was his best friend in the world, his adorable dog, Sherlock Bones, whom he lived for. However, Sherlock had become extremely ill and the vet came to the house to put the dog to sleep. What occurs after that is so inventive and improbable that you want to cry — but, miraculously, you start to giggle and you don’t know why.

The slightly-over-an-hour-long show includes audience participation, consisting of some who have been alerted ahead of time by being given pieces of paper with a number on each of them, along with a word or sentence that they call out after Donahoe yells their number in the middle of his monologue. Some in the audience are asked to walk to the middle of the stage and perform whatever duties dictated by the actor. All were very good-natured about this sudden thrust into the spotlight, especially the couple who were asked to hold up each end of a portable keyboard on which Donahoe played and sang snippets of tunes.

In places throughout the performance Donahoe reveals his own ups and downs, including how he even found happiness. During college, he met and eventually married “a wonderful girl.” However a few years later, when she urged him to seek medical help for his bouts of depression, he resists. Years later, he eventually saw the value of such treatment. In a dead serious tone, he warns the audience: “If you ever consider suicide, just don’t do it; please go and talk to someone, because things will, at some point, get better. Believe me, I’ve been there. So, you must hang in there because life is filled with too many brilliant things for you to leave it.”

“Every Brilliant Thing” runs through June 11 at the Woolfe Street Playhouse. For tickets, call 843-579-3100, or go to spoletousa.org.

 

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