Friday, January 18, 2019

Take a seat and join the list-making: IRT finds a thread of humor in a young man's processing of family woe

Long ago in another city, I was hoping to get back on the theater beat and looking on with bemusement at the
Marcus Truschinski (The Man) calls on an audience member to name another brilliant thing.
reporter who was our superiors' latest favorite on the arts beat. Once I was especially struck with wonder overhearing how he had to be talked out of accepting a gift of crystal stemware from the producer of a high-profile theater series.

I think I could have passed that ethics test unassisted, but never mind. As a critic I've never been cajoled to accept a gift, neither when I was restored to covering the arts for the Flint Journal nor since then during many years at the Indianapolis Star. Ditto in retirement over the past five-plus years.

But Thursday night there I was in an onstage seat at a performance of "Every Brilliant Thing" at Indiana Repertory Theatre. And suddenly I was being bribed with a candy bar.

Let me explain: I was a minor participant in a production involving spontaneous audience interaction with the play's sole actor. Before curtain time, Marcus Truschinski had been strolling around the Upperstage audience handing out slips of paper with a few words on each, instructing the recipient to call out the words in response to his shouting the number from the stage during the performance. My wife had received one of the slips, and twice responded to her cue loud and clear, but for a while I was counting on my good fortune to be passed by.

No such luck, as it turned out. I would be happy to know that Truschinski considered me just another patron when, in character, he sat down on the step beside me and narrated his character's encounter with a nice old couple in the hospital where his mother was recovering from a suicide attempt. I did not "smell weird," he told the audience, and the niceness that had been thrust upon us in the play earned me the remainder of the open candy bar he was carrying.

So plied, I believe I can still deliver a disinterested assessment of "Every Brilliant Thing," a one-act play by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe.  The somehow buoyant drama about the suicide, preceded by several attempts, of a parent and its effect on a young man is both a bold and a reassuring piece of theater. The play's title points to the importance of identifying what makes life worth living: in the case of the play's sole character, writing down everything that has shone for him. The young man (simply called The Man) has first encountered death when his pet dog needed to be put to sleep by a veterinarian. He is challenged by death from that boyhood incident on into more wrenching experiences with his mother's self-destructive habit.

Truschinski recalls for us the boy/man's struggles to build a satisfying life through study, love, and work while grappling with suicide repeatedly striking so close to home. The attempts are like scary, well-crafted rehearsals. The mother herself seems like an abstract, threatening puzzle; suicide becomes  fused with her identity. "I guess you could say I've a call," the suicidal poet Sylvia Plath declares with glum pride in "Lady Lazarus."  The call to others can be difficult to resist. As Plath's odd popularity up to today illustrates, this is a widespread cultural burden, stemming at least from the time of Goethe's 1774 novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," an archetype of self-murder whose resonance has recurred over the centuries, with celebrity suicides such as Marilyn Monroe's making the act dangerously symbolic and alluring.

The play's father is more actual, and thus the audience volunteer in this role is particularly conspicuous (and most creditable Thursday night). But, with the sound design actualizing it, he is described as walling himself in with a sound track on records — Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, and others. The son fortunately finds resonance in some of his father's "brilliant things" while compiling a huge list of his own to sustain him.

As directed here by Tim Ocel, the freshness of the concept — to bring unprepared (but concisely coached) audience contributions into the Man's story — gives the high-spirited jollity of a party game to a depressing and generally off-putting subject. We are invited to recognize the pain of depression in ourselves, but given a vehicle, well stocked with "brilliant things," to carry us along that bumpy road. The attractiveness and flexibility of the actor is key to the success of this strange theatrical contraption. Truschinski projected the held-at-arm's-length pain, the curiosity, humor, and resilience of the Man as he probes his attic of memories and tries to assemble a life-sustaining mosaic of many brilliant things.

Here's the most brilliant thing about this play: The device of having ad hoc amateurs impersonate important people in the Man's life — the veterinarian, a grade-school teacher, a professor, the girlfriend/wife, and the father — sheds light on how our memories work, even when we recall the most influential people we've known. I think the people we once knew, whether briefly or thoroughly, are inevitably recalled as stand-ins enabling us to evoke particular experiences.

They are accurately recalled only insofar as they serve our memory's purposes; inevitably the real people are somewhere else, irretrievable. It's a sad but beautiful thought. But why shouldn't everyone hold on to an integrity that's always beyond our recollection? They're entitled to it. Thank goodness there is something more separate and fuller about these people than we can ever know. They are called up as simulacrums from the internal audience that raptly hears us talking to ourselves when we try to make sense of our lives.

And so, at the end I carefully rewrapped the Hershey's candy bar, tucked it gently into my program as we left the theater, took it home and refrigerated it briefly to restore its firmness. Then I enjoyed it slowly with a glass of coffee liqueur.

Another brilliant thing!

[Photo by Zach Rosing]

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