THE BLOG
12/14/2014 09:57 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2015

First Nighter: Jonny Donahoe's Brilliant 'Every Brilliant Thing'

Even before Every Brilliant Thing began I realized the spunky, balding fellow racing about the in-the-round Barrow Street Theatre to hand out sheets of paper and chat with audience members was undoubtedly the solo show's performer, Jonny Donahoe. I also decided there was something instantly likable about him.

Then the 60-minute piece started and not only did I like him going about the piece he's co-written with Duncan MacMillan--it's energetically directed by George Perrin--but it hit me that he was a fellow whom audiences would have a hard time resisting.

By the time he finished what turned out not to be a solo outing at all, I was convinced that though there might have been a dissenter or two among us, just about everyone else in the crowd felt about him exactly as I did.

And what does Donahoe do that engenders such endearment? As he roams the intimate room non-stop, he tells the patrons that when he was 7 (he was born in 1980), he learned his mother was in the hospital. After coaxing his father to explain why, he found out that she had tried to kill herself.

Upset at the thought that she believed there was no reason to continue living, he had the idea of compiling a list of reasons she should go on. Starting with "ice cream," he compiled the list and kept at it, but rather than reading it himself, he calls out numbers. There's when audience members--on whose slips of paper the numbers appear--shout out the brilliant things he's itemized. Incidentally, a couple of normally contained reviewing colleagues were among that merry number.

The number responders aren't the only ones whom he brings into an audience-participation show that proves to me--someone who intensely dislikes audience-participation shows--that there is a right way and a wrong way to do them and that his is about the rightest way I've ever witnessed. Plus which, he includes lots of music, like Etta James's classic version of "At Last."

In addition to the many list readers, Donahoe prevails on patrons to impersonate figures in his life. Among those stood in for are his patient father, a veterinarian who put down a beloved dog called Sherlock Bones, a child psychologist with whom he consulted after his mother's first suicide attempt (yes, there were more) and a favorite college lecturer.

There's also Sam, the young man with whom he fell in love, eventually married and, sadly, from whom he eventually become estranged. This sequence includes a proposal and acceptance guaranteed to melt all but the hardest hearts.

The cause of the Jonny-Sam separation is at the heart of Donahoe's mission: bringing forward the prickly matter of depression, suicide and how those affected by family suicides respond over time. The brilliant thing about Every Brilliant Thing is that admitting to the depression that seeped through him as he matured, Donahoe passes along the solution he found: The List, which, as he continues to call numbers, grows to one million.

N.B.: He doesn't include each one of them. Nor does he ask audience members to add to the list with their own favorite things. Remember this is a 60-minute interlude, but if he's still welcoming additions, I'd like to suggest Fred Astaire and the smiles of Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Julie Christie and Julia Roberts.

Whether men and women deeply entrenched in their depression will be pulled out of it via the Donahoe method isn't guaranteed, I wouldn't think. Nonetheless, he's not only demonstrating his apparently successful recovery--he spends much of the hour laughing and taking delight in his helpers--but he also hands out a great gift.

It's a gift especially meaningful at this season, which, while joyful for many, has a reputation for raising the annual suicide quotient. If I see a performance piece any time soon that gives me as much pleasure and raises my spirits as high as Jonny Donahoe's has, I'll be grateful. And if I ever start my own list, he'll be on it prominently.