‘Every Brilliant Thing’ opens hearts with humor at Workhouse Arts Center

Transcendent themes about love, community, and the comforting humanity of pain anchor this brave show in a hopeful place.

By Jillian Parks

    1. Sunsets that have more than two colors in them
    1. The smell of bonfires that wafts through the window when you drive through Virginia suburbs
    2. Uber drivers who drive like NASCAR racers when you say, “I’m late for a show, please step on it!”

If I were asked to create my own list of every brilliant thing, I would have to include these three things from the drive over to Workhouse Arts Center this weekend. One of the great things about a show like Every Brilliant Thing is that it forces the audience to open their eyes wider and with more focus than most of us are naturally oriented with the natural stresses of daily life.

Jackie Madejski as the Narrator in ‘Every Brilliant Thing.’ Photo by Kayla Garcia Photography.

Every Brilliant Thing is a one-person play, chronicled by a nameless Narrator who chooses audience members to fill in roles as needed. The Narrator I saw was Jackie Madejski, who alternates with Danny Seal throughout the run.

The show follows the Narrator as she crafts a list of every brilliant thing that she can think of, first in a whimsical childlike fashion to cheer up her despondent mother and eventually for herself on her own journey through depression and loss. Amid audience members yelling out “Ice cream!” and “The color yellow!,” the Narrator navigates her mother’s attempts to take her own life. The Narrator also manages to fall in love, rave about jazz records, and, spoiler, get the list up to a million brilliant things, all in the span of about 90 minutes.

    1. People who laugh loudly at jokes in theaters to prevent awkward silences
    1. Amber lighting instead of those harsh, white fluorescents (thanks to the lighting design of Christina Giles)
    2. Plays that include music, especially Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald (thanks to the brilliant sound design of Clare Pfeifer with Brian Bachrach)

The show was exactly as advertised: surprisingly funny. The playwrights, Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, juxtapose really lovely transient things with really heavy themes. In an intimate setting, it can feel inappropriate to laugh. The theater-in-the-round setup in an intimate black-box–style space forced the audience to step into vulnerability. Part of the show becomes pushing through the heavy, the uncomfortable, and the sad to appreciate the funny, the joyful, and the good. The two exist at once.

Audience participation also helps with vulnerability. Upon the show starting, I was chosen, what felt like immediately, to play the role of the Vet. I had to put down the Narrator’s dog, Bob Barker. Part luck, part pre-show instruction, part excellent improvisation by Madejski, the audience bits worked really well. From the improvised “father of the bride” speech to the two audience members who just so happened to have books on them for the library scene to the natural participation and engagement by the audience member who played the love interest, Sam, it’s impressive how many gaps people can fill in when prompted.

I even got to take a bow at the end.

Jackie Madejski as the Narrator in ‘Every Brilliant Thing.’ Photo by Kayla Garcia Photography.

Madejski navigated the show with endless energy, authenticity, and confidence that made the show everything that it was. If she was having fun, we were having fun. If she was struggling or hurting, the air felt like it got sucked out of the room. She does a lot of hand-holding and audience-coaxing that allows the people to get comfortable with a situation that could be really uncomfortable. During one of her more raw, more hopeless moments, the background buzzes with the ominous sound of a crackling record as she monologues. No more music. No more instrumental distraction. Just her and the reality that noticing brilliant things can sometimes feel like an impossible feat.

    1. Making eye contact with an actor during a heavy monologue
    1. Making eye contact with your fellow audience members and communicating with your eyes
    2. Theater that feels like a community, even if only for an hour and a half

While it was, of course, lovely to be reminded of the beauty of ice cream and dancing alone and listening to a record for the first time, the more transcendent themes about love, community, and the comforting humanity of pain are what anchor this play in a hopeful place. This is a brave show that confronts heaviness with humor without divesting it of its seriousness, and Workhouse Arts Center gave it a form that lets the content really shine.

In the words of the Narrator: “Things may not always get brilliant, but they get better.”

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes (varies depending on audience participation) with no intermission.

Every Brilliant Thing plays through April 14, 2024, at the Workhouse Arts Center’s W-3 Theater located at 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA. Purchase tickets ($35 for general admission, $30 for military and seniors, and $25 for students) at the box office, online, or by calling 703-584-2900.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional at Workhouse Arts Center for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so.

Jillian Parks is a junior Rhetoric and Media major at Hillsdale College; however, she devotes the bulk of her time to her Journalism minor. She grew up doing and teaching community theater, which has bled directly into the kinds of writing she is passionate about. This past semester she served as Culture editor of the campus newspaper, The Collegian, highlighting everything from student projects to New York City debuts. She also works as the Digital Director for the college’s radio station and co-hosts a weekly podcast on factual disparities in social media narratives.

Every Brilliant Thing
By Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Sarah Byrons
Produced by Joseph Wallen and Liz Colandene

Narrator- Jackie Madejski and Danny Seal split the role
Stage Manager- Rob Cork
Props- Rob Cork
Lighting Design- Christina Giles
Master Electrician- Brian Bachrach
Sound Design- Clare Pfeifer with Brian Bachrach
Costume Consulting- Rachael Norberg


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