“#992: Knowing to jangle your keys while walking through the nature preserve so the otters will come out.” That was my spoken contribution to Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, a solo show about finding reasons to live now in its Chicago premiere at Windy City Playhouse, where the incandescent Rebecca Spence is our tour guide and narrator. Before the play begins, Spence greets us and gives us numbered slips of paper with a reason—when we hear the number, we chime in. Unless we’re enlisted to play another character, such as the narrator’s father or veterinarian.
If that sounds unbearably homiletic (and possibly unnerving for the introverts in the house), maybe I should back up and point out that the list in Macmillan’s show (which began at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with actor Jonny Donahoe, who subsequently appeared in the HBO documentary of the same name) begins with a seven-year-old girl struggling to come up with reasons for her mom to stay alive after a failed suicide attempt. While her initial catalog contains things near and dear to a child’s heart (ice cream!), as Spence’s character grows and faces her own adult challenges, the list takes on deeper situations. Much like Tiny Beautiful Things (the show currently at Victory Gardens, based on Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar collection of advice columns), Macmillan’s narrative doesn’t flinch from the sorrowful and the unfixable in life.
Spence, under Jessica Fisch’s direction, reinvents Macmillan’s British man into an American woman—one whose fear of turning out to be too much like her mother both motivates and stymies her interactions with others. But when it comes to making us all feel welcome and valued, this show is, well, brilliant. v