River & Rail’s ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ shows disarming brilliance

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

1. Ice Cream.

26. Peeing in the sea and nobody knows.

314. Having a piano in the kitchen.

316. The smell of old books. 324. Nina Simone’s voice. 517. Winning something. 654. Marlon Brando. 823. Skinny dipping. 996. Really good oranges.

What’s a 7-year-old to do when Dad comes home and says that Mom has done something stupid?

That’s the background of British playwrights Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe’s short, one-person play, “Every Brilliant Thing,” which finished its run Sunday in River & Rail Theatre Company’s production at the Green Room at Jackson Avenue Baggage Warehouses.

Written for only one character, female or male, “Every Brilliant Thing” recounts the confusing and disorienting first days of realizing that Mother has tried to kill herself and trying to find a way to make sense of it.

Ellen Nikbakht

River & Rail’s production had three actors play the child grown into adulthood, recounting these days to an audience that didn’t have the passive role of just observing bystanders. Iranian-American actor Ellen Nikbakht, in a thoroughly engaging performance, was at the center of the show I saw. Jonathan Clark and Joshua Peterson alternated with Nikbakht at other performances.

Before the play began, everyone in the audience was given one or more pieces of paper with a numbered item on it. I had three. One of them was 1006. Surprises!

“When something bad happens, your body feels it before your mind comprehends it,” Nikbakht (no character name is ever given) said early in the play. Her 7-year-old self had to do something. So she started making a list of all of the things that would make life worth living.

1005. Writing about yourself in the third person.

1008. Dancing in private.

1875. Planning a declaration of love.

2005. Vinyl Records. “It’s tactile. You can feel the weight in your hand,” Ellen noted almost absentmindedly. It’s a way of feeling the reality of things.

After Ellen’s mother came home, Ellen put the list on her mother’s pillow one morning while she was still sleeping. Her mother never said anything about it. But Ellen knew she had read it because she corrected the spelling.

Whether the list helped her mother with coping, Ellen was never quite sure. But it helped Ellen. A member of the audience was designated to be Ellen’s father. She asked him questions. He provided made-up answers as they went along.

As she continued recounting her story, along with items on her numbered list, she grew up. She went off to college and forgot about the list.

But when she came home and found it, something encouraged her to keep adding to it.

2389. Fabulous.

9995. Falling in love.

10,000. Waking up next to someone you love.

An audience member was designated to be Ellen’s loved one.

525,924. The prospect of dressing up for a Mexican Restaurant.

Ellen got married. It didn’t work out well.

But the list persisted.

1,000,000. Listening to a record for the first time.

“Every Brilliant Thing” isn’t a play that allows you to stay at arm’s length, to just watch. It forces you to get involved. You read part of the list. Or become one of the characters in the grown child’s life. The underlying meaning is that everyone needs someone else.

In its own disarming way, “Every Brilliant Thing” got at that need brilliantly.

More about River & Rail Theatre and its upcoming productions can be found here.

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