Olney Theatre shows life is worth living with “Every Brilliant Thing”

Alexander Strait (left) takes direction from Jason Loewith in Olney Theatre rehearsal of “Every Brilliant Thing.” COURTESY PHOTO BY TIMOTHY HUTHAlexander Strait (left) takes direction from Jason Loewith in Olney Theatre rehearsal of “Every Brilliant Thing.”   COURTESY PHOTO BY TIMOTHY HUTH  There are bucket lists everywhere, even in the popular song “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.”

Then there’s “Every Brilliant Thing,” an ever-changing list of objects and experiences that make life worth living. In a play of the same name, a young boy compiles such a list, in an effort to persuade his mother, who had attempted suicide, not to do it again.

“Every Brilliant Thing” is the next production at Olney Theatre Center, opening Feb. 28. It marks the premiere of the one-person play, which Duncan Macmillan wrote with the cooperation of Jonny Donahoe, the original performer.

Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director, is staging the production.

It was serendipitous that “Every Brilliant Thing” came to Olney. Loewith happened to see the script in a London bookstore, bought it, and read it on the plane ride back.

“I burst into tears on the second page, and then into laughter,” he said. “The play is poignant and wonderful.”

Despite the subject matter, Loewith added, “Every Brilliant Thing” has a great deal of humor.

On another trip to London, Loewith got to see the play, with Donahoe.

More serendipity occurred when Alexander Strain, a longtime D.C.-area actor, agreed to return to the stage for the first time since taking a break four years ago to pursue a Masters in legal and forensic psychology in 2014.

Never completely divorcing himself from theater and his love of storytelling, Strain said that as a psychologist, he would look for plays that dealt with mental illness. He saw a performance of “Every Brilliant Thing” and was drawn to it.

Initially he didn’t know anyone in the area was planning to produce it, but once he heard of Olney’s plans, he decided to throw his hat in the audition ring.

“‘Every Brilliant Thing’ is not only about depression and suicide but is also a comedy,” Strain said. “It’s also intriguing -- a one-person show in which the audience interacts. The more I learned about it, the more intrigued I became.”

You could say the solo-performance play is the opposite of “night, Mother,” a dark play by Marsha Norman in which a woman fails to persuade her daughter from committing suicide.

In “Every Brilliant Thing,” the narrator recruits audience members to assume different roles in his story -- providing at least some of the humor, Loewith pointed out.

“This is a unique piece, on the sense that I’m not really a character and it’s not my own story. It’s low-key and informal yet very high-energy, and I can bring a lot of myself into it,” said Strain.

Loewith agreed that the play “is little bit hard to explain; it defies explanation.”

The lights are on during the performance to create a sense of community among audience members, he added.

The narrator/boy at the heart of the story, who is seven when the play begins, includes such age-appropriate items on his initial list as ice cream and purple. But the list changes as his life changes.

With chronic mental illness in his background, “He avoids falling into depression himself through the magic of the list,” said Loewith.

To the performances, Olney has added a behind-the-scenes discussion to take place on March 3 at 5 p.m. Loewith and representatives of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Montgomery County will address practicing resiliency after trauma; mental health and suicide in the media; and training our brains to scan the world for the positive.

Jenna Duncan, the theater’s associate artistic director, will moderate.

Olney is partnering with the America Foundation for Suicide Prevention and NAMI MC to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention during the run of the play.

“Every Brilliant Thing” runs Feb. 28 through March 25 at Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney. For information and tickets, visit:



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