Ice cream. Water fights. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV. The color yellow. Things with stripes. Roller coasters. People falling over.
These are just a few of the one million things that make life worth living, according to “Every Brilliant Thing” writers Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe.
“Every Brilliant Thing,” which premiered Sept. 8, is running through Sept. 24 at the Garden Theatre in downtown Winter Garden.
The one-man monologue is performed by John O’Hurley, best known for his portrayal of J. Peterman in the hit show “Seinfeld,” a first-year finalist on “Dancing with the Stars” and former host of game show “Family Feud.”
“This affects a lot of people at a very deep level, and I don’t think you have to look very far to the left or right to find some sort of personal attachment to it,” O’Hurley said. “This is something that can happen anywhere and everywhere. It does happen. Mental illness is not something you only see in the homeless person you pass on the street. Mental illness is something that affects every suburb and every white picket fence home in America. It knows no bounds.”
LIFE WORTH LIVING
O’Hurley draws audience members into the story collaboratively to weave a message of hope by focusing on life’s small joys and our love for others — even in the darkest of times.
Garden Theatre COO Keith Davenport said the theater selected this particular production to take the stage in September — the month that includes National Suicide Prevention Week.
“What better place to have these tough conversations than a safe space like the Garden Theatre?” Davenport said. “Our backyards are not immune to mental-health issues, and this production is a way for us to make a difference in our community and have those essential discussions. It’s really about knowing that there is a safe space to open up. We don’t need to hide behind the emotional connection people have with mental health and the negative stigma around it.”
O’Hurley said the play is one of the most challenging productions he has ever done.
“To pick up a script that is a 90-minute monologue that is already scripted and learn it, especially with this subject matter,” he said. “Once you’ve learned the script, that’s just the words. Now you have to learn the intent and the context of what is happening. Then on top of that, if you want to make it even more difficult, throw in about a hundred different numbers that all have to be absolutely perfect. You can’t miss the number, because if you do, then all you hear is silence.”
O’Hurley said the production has a contemporary “Hamlet” feel to it. The script explores the struggle to survive and the journey to self-discovery.
He said one of his favorite brilliant things is “watching somebody come onto the subway train as they squeeze on just as the doors are closing and you make eye contact with them and celebrate the little victory.”
“Contained in that is such a wonderful moment of just the human experience of being able to look someone else in the eye and go, ‘Whew, we made it,’” he said. “I love that quiet, wonderful moment because it says so much about just appreciating the vulnerability of another human being and says a lot.”
O’Hurley shared the production allows him to replay his childhood. Growing up, his sister was diagnosed with epilepsy and eventually lost her life to it.
“There are some strong connections between this and growing up,” he said. “It doesn’t disappear; it stays with you. Mental-health issues are profound, but they’re also something we (hide) into the corner of our lives. We grow up believing there are just some things you don’t talk about. We don’t want to talk about them because they’re weird. People have a hard time speaking about neurological disorders. Somehow, when we discuss matters of the brain, everybody kind of turns and runs. They’re not attractive things to talk about, but they have to be talked about. The fact that we lose 22 of our veterans every day in this country to suicide is an absolutely stunning statistic after they have given their lives to protect us and secure our freedoms.”
One of the things O’Hurley said he learned the most from the production is how deeply suicide affects those who are left behind.
“The actual taking of life is only the beginning of the long road of grief,” he said. “The trail of grief that will be left behind that will last for a lifetime for all the people that are associated with that person.”
LEADING WITH IMAGINATION
O’Hurley has considered himself an actor for nearly his entire life.
When he was 3 years old and people would ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up, with a sense of disgust that only a 3-year-old could muster, O’Hurley would put his hands on his hips and point to the black-and-white TV and say, “Well, I am an actor, so I’m going to be an actor, of course.”
Originally, O’Hurley reached out to the Garden Theatre to talk about performing his one-man show called “A Man with Standards,” a 90-minute retrospective on the songs of The Great American Songbook along with the musings from his eclectic life and career.
However, after seeing the HBO movie “Every Brilliant Thing,” and realizing how similar the production was to his own, he agreed to the show.
“I have a very curious directive in my career, and it’s that I listen to my imagination,” he said. “I don’t listen to my rational mind. My rational mind has never done anything worthwhile. The rational mind is what has what I refer to as the flight-or-fight syndrome. It’s there to protect you. The rational mind keeps you safe, and it puts you in situations out of harm’s way.
“Your imagination won’t do that,” O’Hurley said. “Your imagination is a 24/7 assessment of who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. I am always listening to that, and if I can see a picture of myself succeeding in that venture, then I know that I have to do it. I’ve always listened to my imagination in my career, and that’s why I have such an eclectic career.”
O’Hurley hopes to continue the production and take it around the country.
“I’m really stunned by it; I think it’s a very, very powerful piece, and this, along with my other show, are two very important arrows in my quiver,” he said. “I like that. I like having things that are meaningful, that are important and that I can take around. I like that version of Hollywood. I’m not crazy about the other version. This is so much more enjoyable for me as a performer.”
“Every Brilliant Thing” is part of the four-show Broadway on Plant Series announced in July by the Garden Theatre in partnership with Victory Productions.
The season will run through May 2024.
In addition to the four full-length theatrical presentations, the season will feature weekend events such as concerts, dance events and comedy shows. The theater’s “Encore” fundraising celebration also will return.
A number of seats for “Every Brilliant Thing” are located on the stage, providing patrons with a more immersive and intimate experience of the story. Tickets for these exclusively positioned seats only can be obtained by calling the box office or visiting the box office during regular hours, and are based on availability.
The show is rated PG-13 and includes occasional mild language and thought-provoking discussions that touch upon sensitive topics related to emotional well-being and personal struggles.
Post-show discussions are being led by Renew Counseling to promote open conversations about mental health and foster a supportive community environment.
The discussions are scheduled after the 7:30 p.m. show Sept. 14 and the 2 p.m. show Sept. 23.