William Hodgson in Oakland Theater Project’s production of Every Brilliant Thing. Credit: Colin Mandlin.
Credit: Oakland Theater Project

One of the things I love about the Oakland Theater Project (OTP) is how they make the most with the least. The theater (formerly the Ubuntu Theater Project) consistently presents innovative, arresting theatrical productions on a shoestring budget without a professional theater at modest ticket prices.

And Every Brilliant Thing is no exception. In fact, it’s one of OTP’s best. Written by Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe (who initially performed it in the United Kingdom), this extraordinary one-person show is the human, humane, and sometimes humorous story of how a man grew up with a depressed and suicidal mother. Don’t be scared by the subject matter. As directed by Michael Socrates Moran (OTP’s co-founder and co-artistic director), this play commemorates the beauty of life in its everyday glory. At the same time, it skillfully and gingerly explores the human psyche.

In an outstanding solo performance, William Hodgson (OTP’s other co-artistic director) plays the narrator, who, as a 7-year-old boy coping with his mother’s suicide attempt, begins to compile a list of the pleasures of life. His heartbreakingly sweet idea was to present the list to his mother so that she would find new meaning in life and want to continue living. No. 1 on the 7-year-old’s list is “ice cream”; No. 6 is “rollercoasters.”

The narrator continues working on the list, growing it to one million “things” as we follow him through the ups and downs of his adult life. Over time, we see the repercussions of his mother’s depression continue to affect him.

Some of the list items correspond to matching numbered post-it notes that are distributed to the audience upon entrance. And when the narrator calls out a number, the designated audience member is asked to call out the content of their note. I had No. 45, “Nina Simone’s voice.”

Some audience members may be called to the stage floor to portray some minor roles extemporaneously during the approximately one-hour performance. They include the vet who put the young boy’s dog to sleep, the school psychologist who helped console him with a sock puppet after his mother’s suicide attempt and a lecturer on The Sorrows of Young Werther. Don’t be turned off by this. First, it’s easy, and William Hodgson makes everybody comfortable and kindly helps the chosen players through their part. Second, the theater room holds less than 50 people, and the stage floor is not large, so no big deal anyway.

During the lockdown, my thoughts occasionally turned to what makes most of us carry on despite our difficulties — are we just hard-wired that way or afraid of the unknown? Seeing Every Brilliant Thing makes me remember that perhaps we continue on simply because for most of us life is filled with so much love, fun, excitement, and pleasure that it generally makes up for the bad spots. I am adding seeing Every Brilliant Thing to my personal list.

Every Brilliant Thing is playing indoors at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 31 at The Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in Oakland. All attendees must present proof of vaccination or a negative test and wear a mask.

Seating is socially distanced. General admission tickets are $25–$35 (seating assigned upon arrival at the theater), priority tickets with reserved seats are $50, and pay-what-you-can tickets ($10–$20) will be available for every performance. All tickets will be sold online until two hours before each performance. Tickets are available on the Oakland Theater Project’s website or by calling 510-646-1126.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...