Inspiring ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ affirms life after loss

William Thomas Hodgson is terrific as The Narrator in Center Repertory Company's "Every Brilliant Thing," a solo show with dynamic audience participation onstage through Jan. 28 at Lesher Center for the Arts. (Courtesy Alessandra Mello)

After heartbreaking loss, what can possibly keep us going? In “Every Brilliant Thing,” the answers are surprisingly life-affirming. 

Written by English playwright Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, this luminous play opened over the weekend at Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company.

The production, directed by Jeffrey Lo, features William Thomas Hodgson in a high-octane performance as The Narrator, a grieving son struggling with the realization that his mother has lost her will to live. And here’s how he copes: by starting to keep a list of things that make life worth living. Ice cream? Yes! The color yellow? The even-numbered “Star Trek” films? Yes and yes. 

What starts as inspiration becomes an obsession, as Hodgson continues to add to the list and its entries soar into the thousands, finally hitting 1 million. 

Making the list gives him a much-needed energy infusion. At the same time, with a sense of sorrow and a thrilling, manic energy, he takes us deep into the experience of grief’s dark progression. 

Patrons are welcome to add to a list of what makes life worth living that’s the subject of “Every Brilliant Thing.” (Courtesy Alessandra Mello)

There’s a connection throughout, as the two threads merge and Hodgson calls on folks from the crowd to give voice to their own suggestions for the list—and even step in as his young self, his father and other minor characters. It’s a moving fusion of light and dark, and Lo’s staging, running just over an hour without intermission, paces the action superbly, giving the audience time to absorb each new revelation. 

Director Lo has set “Every Brilliant Thing” not in the midsize Margaret Lesher Theatre upstairs in the center, but in the smaller, more intimate George & Sonja Vukasin Theatre next to the box office. With the audience seated in the round, it makes a striking difference: Hodgson’s free to range through the space at will, speaking to audience members, enhancing the play’s sense of intimacy. He’s a likeable player, and he gives the Narrator a smart, energetic, insightful edge. But his grief is always there, just below the surface. 

The production is minimal, with the addition of a few on-point designs: lighting by Spense Matubang, costumes by Liesl Buchbinder, and sound by Gregory Robinson. The set has a chair, books and records, and the essential turntable to play the music that evokes key moments in the family’s history. 

“Every Brilliant Thing” onstage in Walnut Creek offers a theatergoer the opportunity to play the part of a sock-puppet wielding teacher who helps a young student. (Courtesy Alessandra Mello)

“Every Brilliant Thing” is serious, because grief is. But there’s a surprising wealth of humor in the play, some provided by the brave audience members who come onstage in supporting roles, some in Hodgson’s fearless, up-front delivery. And there’s something genius in the idea of writing down those brilliant things. The audience was encouraged to stay and write their own after the show, and inspiration was evident; there were many who did. 

“Every Brilliant Thing” continues through Jan. 28 at Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $35-$40 at (925) 943-7469 or 

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