Cedar City • Sitting in the audience at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Brenda Jeppson suddenly found herself taking off her sock (with help from her husband), putting it on her hand and pretending it was a puppet.
The retired English teacher from Taylorsville wasn’t having some sort of breakdown. She was an impromptu part of the one-man — plus the audience — play, “Every Brilliant Thing,” acting opposite star Michael Doherty. And she was loving every minute of it.
“I wasn’t nervous a bit. I was thrilled that [Doherty] asked me to be part of it,” Jeppson said. “I really did have fun.”
That seems unexpected, given the subject matter. Doherty plays a man whose mother repeatedly attempts suicide — and who, as a child, decides to put together a list of every brilliant thing that makes life worth living, in an attempt to make her want to stay alive.
As audience members help tell the story, the play “takes a group of strangers and turns them into a group of supporters, by recognizing that so many of us have been touched by depression and suicide,” said director Vincent J. Cardinal.
“We leave that room feeling like we have a whole new community of people who at least get us,” he said, “and that’s a big step.”
The play, by Duncan Macmillian, debuted in 2013 in England and was first performed in the United States a year later off-Broadway. But several audience members leaving the theater were under the impression that it was Doherty’s autobiography — a testament to the connection he formed with them.
“The whole audience was very focused. The energy he puts into this is amazing,” Jeppson said. “It seemed like it was his story. I just about was crying.”
Doherty himself describes it as a “lean forward and engage” experience that is “intimate and very personal.” It’s an extraordinarily serious subject, but “Every Brilliant Thing” is by no means unremittingly dark. There’s a lot of humor.
“It’s the only way we can discuss a subject this fraught and this taboo — through humor,” Doherty said. “If we can all share a genuine laugh before we dive into the darker elements of this show, then we can hear it better.”
“EVERY BRILLIANT THING”
Where • Utah Shakespeare Festival, Anes Studio Theatre, 195 W. Center Street, Cedar City
Schedule • Performances Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through Aug. 29; Friday, Sept. 6; Wednesday, Sept. 11-Saturday, Sept. 14; Tuesdays-Saturday from Sept. 17-Aug. 12. Go to bard.org for more information.
Tickets • $52, available at bard.org; by calling 1-800-PLAYTIX; or at the box office. (Discounts available for students, seniors, military, etc.)
‘Always, always, always a victory’
About 30 minutes before the show begins, Doherty walks through the audience soliciting help. Some are reluctant, but most audience members — who range in age from preteens to senior citizens — agree.
There are smiles and laughs all around as Doherty hands out numbered cards printed with a reason to live. During the performance, he calls out a number, and the audience member reads the corresponding card.
Other audiences members take on larger roles. One young woman mimes a veterinarian euthanizing a pet dog. Jeppson played Mrs. Patterson, a school counselor the boy saw after his mother’s first suicide attempt.
Erin Duffey was pulled into the narrative as the young woman the protagonist falls in love with in college. She works in the management end of the Shakespeare Festival, but she didn’t anticipate she’d be a significant part of the show when she arrived at the theater.
“I actually chose my seat specifically because I didn’t think I would get called on,” said Duffey, who sat in the top row.
But the Anes Studio Theatre is small; it seats about 200 in theater in the round, so nobody is far from the stage. And the lights are up throughout the just-over-an-hour performance. “If you’re in the room, it’s pretty likely you’re going to be playing along at some level,” said Cardinal, the director.
That’s a delicate balancing act, because many people deal with depression and suicidal thoughts — or have loved ones who do. And they bring those experiences to the theater.
“The most important thing about this is just constantly acknowledging that there’s someone in this room right now who’s been directly affected by this,” Doherty said.
And being ready for each performance to be different. “Every time we’ve done it,” Doherty said, “something new has happened. We’ve discovered something. Someone has reacted in a whole new way that changes the course of events slightly. And it’s all good.”
Cardinal said he typically “hates audience participation because it’s so cringey, so embarrassing. And it’s often about making someone look foolish for the entertainment of others.”
That is definitely not the case with “Every Brilliant Thing.” No one was mocked; everyone could feel support from the rest of the audience.
“That’s definitely how I felt,” Duffey said. “I am not somebody who typically likes audience-participation theater. But the way that this was written and the way it was directed makes you feel like you’re not being made fun of, you’re actually just part of the story.”
The most that’s asked of participating audience members is “a gentle improv,” as Doherty put it. “It allows people to rise to their best self. And so it’s always, always, always a victory no matter what happens. No one can do any wrong.”
‘This creates an opportunity’
Doherty’s energetic performance riveted those in attendance, as the narrative swung swiftly and seamlessly from hilarity to tragedy.
Hilary Caldwell, an audience member who read one of the cards, said she admired Macmillan, the playwright, “for crafting the show in such a way where you do go through this entire gamut of emotions in split seconds. And to have someone who is as personable and capable of delivering such a personal connection to each of his audience members as Michael [Doherty] is — it’s astonishing.”
Doherty said he constantly reminds himself that he’s not just there to entertain people but to perform “a public service.”
“It’s just so rare that the work can feel as potentially life-changing and lifesaving, or as important, as this work can be,” he said.
“Every Brilliant Thing” runs in Cedar City through Oct. 12, but that won’t be the end of the show in Utah. The Shakespeare Festival plans to cast two other actors and send the play to every high school in the state — at no cost to the schools.
Jeppson, who taught at both Elk Ridge Middle School in South Jordan and Oquirrh Hills Middle School in Riverton, said she thinks that’s a great idea.
“These kids just need people to talk to them and tell them the truth. They are watching their peers commit suicide. And so many of them are suffering through depression,” she said. “I think them seeing this show would would really, really help them.”
As far as Cardinal and Doherty are concerned, it’s the perfect way to get teenagers to talk about suicide, which is the No. 1 killer of kids ages 10-17 in Utah.
“From my own personal experience, I know that one of the biggest symptoms of this disease is silence,” said Doherty, who has friends who deal with depression. “This creates an opportunity to talk about it in a very constructive way.”
It’s a way to “give kids the language to speak about it in ways that don’t feel so self-revealing,” Cardinal said. They can talk about their feelings about the play without making themselves part of the story.
“Because the show is really about turning each audience into a group of supporters,” Cardinal said, “we are creating pockets of support through doing the show.”
“And even if reaches just one kid, it’s all worth it,” Doherty said.
If you or someone you know are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.