By Melissa Arnold
On any given day here in America, roughly 130 people die by suicide. Countless more are actively struggling with poor self-esteem, depression or self-harm. If it’s not you, then it’s likely someone you know and love. No one is immune. One bright spot: It’s also becoming more common to talk openly about mental health. More people are going to therapy or reaching out for help in other ways.
This summer, Theatre Three in Port Jefferson will present eight performances of an intimate, moving and funny one-man play called Every Brilliant Thing. The protagonist, a middle-aged man played by Jeffrey Sanzel, takes the audience along as he recalls his mother’s mental illness and multiple attempts at suicide, along with their impact on his own wellbeing.
What’s funny about that? Well, after his mother’s first attempt when he was seven years old, the young narrator sets out to make a list of everything in life that’s brilliant – like eating ice cream, or peeing in the ocean without getting caught. Some items on the list come with silly memories that put the honest, pure heart of a little kid on full display. And as he grows, so does the list. The hour-long show is equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting.
Sanzel, the theater’s executive artistic director, said he first discovered the show thanks to lighting director Robert Henderson.
“Robert attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival several years ago and bought the script [for this show] for me to read, just because he thought I’d enjoy it,” Sanzel recalled. “I thought it was a beautiful piece of writing, though I didn’t intend to do a production of it.”
Some time later, he bought a second copy of the script as a gift to his friend, director and actor Linda May.
“When I read the show, I said to Jeffrey, ‘Not only do I love this, but I think we need to do it, and we should do it together.’ Everything came together very quickly from there, and I feel like it was meant to be,” May said.
Every Brilliant Thing was originally set to open in July 2020, only to be tabled by the pandemic. May said the extra time has allowed them to delve much deeper into the show and its character.
“Jeffrey is very decisive and businesslike as a director, but I’ve had the opportunity to see a more vulnerable side of him as an actor,” she said. “This unnamed narrator really divulges personal parts of his life, and I knew that Jeffrey could bring that sensitivity and communicate how important it is to bring the issue of suicide into the open, without shame.”
The show relies on some audience participation, with showgoers making brief appearances as significant people in the narrator’s memories — his father, a counselor, a young woman — and reading items from “the list” from Post-It notes they’re given on arrival. The resulting dynamic is personal and emotional, and each performance will have its own unique variations.
“I have to admit that audience participation isn’t my favorite thing, but it’s brilliantly woven into the fabric of the piece,” Sanzel said. “It’s very funny and balances out the darker elements, while remaining sensitive and respectful of the topic … In fact, this is probably the best play I’ve ever read on the subject of depression. It’s a common topic of discussion in theater, but this was captured in such a unique way.”
Theatre Three has partnered with Response Crisis Center of Long Island for this production. Founded in 1971 by volunteers after a suicide attempt at Stony Brook University, the center is now a 24/7 local hotline and chat service for people in crisis. They also function as a backup center for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, taking more than 5,000 additional calls, chats and texts from them each month.
“We want to give people the support they need and help them to stay safe. It’s hard to problem solve during a crisis situation — you can get a sort of tunnel vision and feel helpless. Talking to someone can help create distance from those feelings,” said Meryl Cassidy, the center’s executive director. “There’s tremendous relief that comes in sharing your story, having someone take the time to listen and help come up with a plan for safety.”
Sanzel approached Cassidy about using the performance to lessen stigma and shine a light on local resources.
Cassidy said that it was important to vet the play first to ensure its message was appropriate and accurate. While she had never heard of the play before, it was well-known to colleagues at the American Association of Suicidology, who were thrilled to endorse the production.
“People are afraid to say the word suicide or disclose thoughts of suicide, both because of stigma and fear of repercussions. But open and honest conversation about suicide saves lives — it’s so important to be able to speak frankly about what you’re feeling and know there are people you can talk to,” Cassidy said.
Half of all gross ticket sales will directly benefit Response Crisis Center. Staff members from the center will be at each performance to answer questions, provide information and offer a listening ear.
Audiences are encouraged to fill out their own “brilliant things” on provided Post-It notes, which will be on display throughout the show’s run — a constantly growing collection of reasons why life is worth living.
“It’s not only a lovely hour of theater — funny, sweet and poignant — but there’s something to take away from this show, and that’s being able to see people in crisis in a different way, without judgment,” May said. “If people walk away feeling more compassionate or less judgmental, or if someone finds the courage to reach out for help, then it’s a success.”
Every Brilliant Thing will run at 3 p.m. on Sundays from July 10 through Aug. 28 at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson. Performances are held downstairs on the second stage. Tickets are $20. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com. Learn more about Response Crisis Center by visiting www.responsecrisiscenter.org.
Note: Although the play balances the struggles of life while celebrating all that is “truly brilliant” in living each day, Every Brilliant Thing contains descriptions of depression, self-harm, and suicide. The show briefly describes attempted suicides and death by suicide. The show is recommended for ages 14 and up, with your own comfort level in mind.
If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available 24/7 at 631-751-7500 or the National Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.