You don’t simply watch Alexander Strain perform “Every Brilliant Thing,” the minor phenomenon that has migrated from Britain to HBO and now to the intimate lab theater at the Olney Theatre Center. You hang with him, maybe grabbing cookies and coffee from a cart at the center of the in-the-round stage as you enter. You absorb the play’s quirky story as Strain persuades you to be present in a singular and uplifting way.
Breaking the fourth wall is hard-wired into the solo script that Duncan Macmillan fashioned with comedian Jonny Donahoe, who toured the piece in the United Kingdom and the United States. Few shows manage this kind of interaction so deftly, and a soft touch is critical to the story Macmillan is out to tell. What our narrator relates is how he has coped with his mother’s depression and suicidal tendencies. His tactic: List every brilliant thing that makes life worth living.
The project goes on for years, though the performance wraps it into an unexpectedly enjoyable 75 minutes. It does not sugarcoat, which is one of the ways it disarms you. It’s honest about depression, and despite the show’s ability to make audiences laugh, it’s also instructive. The narrator shares what he learns about mental health, and the information feels exactly like that — the best available guidance, to be received soberly.
But the narrator also has an idiosyncratic story to tell of mother, father, first love, vinyl records — life going on. The wonder of the performance is how Strain, who has been offstage for four years getting a graduate degree and starting a career in psychology, plays this character while also building a keen rapport with the audience. Confessional stand-up comedians sometimes muster this, but it’s a rarer experience in theater. Under Jason Loewith’s direction, Strain works the crowd and guides the gentle participation (you may be given a line to read). It’s a very live event. But it’s also a subtle piece of acting.
Madeline Joey Rose is also going it alone in “Mom Baby God,” her portrait of the more familiar pro-life movement. (A Solo Voices Theater Festival has broken out in town; four one-person shows opened in the past week.) Rose is an abortion rights activist who immersed herself in the other side, undercover. Her show is not an exposé so much as an empathetic portrait of teen girls being buffeted by hardcore faith and life’s inevitable dramatic swings.
Rose’s main character is 14-year-old Destinee, who reveres antiabortion activist/Live Action founder Lila Rose and has a crush on Justin Bieber. Rose looks the part in bangs, a hoodie and pink Chucks, and the Christian devotion videos she devises with director Lise Bruneau and projection designer Patrick Lord are sweet and awkward.
Destinee goes to a youth pro-life conference, and Rose plays all of the parts. It’s an impressive performance: She smoothly takes on everything from the light Texan twang of a rival to the posh Brit accents of guest speakers and the swaggering-bashful patter of the handsome young frontman for an outfit called Praise Cr3w.
It’s also a good story, if slightly padded at 90 minutes. You suspect Rose wants to give you a taste of all the personalities and rhetoric she’s discovered in the years she has been piecing this together. The first hour feels like a vivid collage. The last 30 minutes grow poignant.
Taffety Punk Theatre Company is giving this a limited run at the Capitol Hills Arts Workshop, but it’s sure to surface again. There are sharp edges, but it doesn’t come across as a mean-spirited, one-sided caricature. Rose makes Destinee a truly adorable kid, and she compellingly illustrates that when true believers lapse, the penalty can be awfully high.
Every Brilliant Thing, by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe. Directed by Jason Loewith. Set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Debra Kim Sevigny; lights, Max Doolittle; sound design, Jane Behre and Ryan Gravett. Through March 25 at Olney Theatre Center. $47-$74. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org. Mom Baby God, written and performed by Madeline Joey Rose. Directed by Lise Bruneau. Through March 10 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. $15. Visit taffetypunk.com.