The rupture that a death creates can sometimes be likened to a black hole whose gravity warps, at least for a time, everything and everyone around it. Sometimes, though, the very prospect of losing someone can be the impetus for a deeper appreciation and celebration of life.
That is the premise of "Every Brilliant Thing," the 60-minute solo show that opened over the weekend at Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. JuCoby Johnson narrates the one-act in the reconfigured Jungle that splits the theater in two, with audience members mirroring each other as they look at the stage and the performer in the middle.
The show, scripted by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe and staged by Meredith McDonough, unspools like an exultation. On the surface, it's a story about a particular character who as a child begins to make a list of things worth living for when his mother attempts suicide.
But it really is a story about all of us, enjoying the journey as we march inevitably to our terminal destinations. "Brilliant" is interactive, but in a disarming way.
Performed with the house lights up, it feels like a spiritual gathering that asks us to be fully present as Johnson, in complete mastery of his character, calls out numbered reasons on pieces of paper that are handed out beforehand and asks audience members to read them.
The scraps contain a smattering of his "brilliant things" worth living for.
Sometimes subdued like a cool spring then bubbly like uncorked Champagne, Johnson brings a zest for life to the role. His performance is honest, charming and marked by a joy tempered with appreciation. Bad things happen to people. He inhabits the character physically and psychically as he moves all around the stage, reveling in soul music, painting and books.
His list, which continues into adulthood, gets interwoven with the vicissitudes of his life, including a growing appreciation of those around him, and romance. In all of it, Johnson's performance is sweet, endearing and wholly absorbing.
Johnson and McDonough were blessed to have some surefire performers in the audience for the interactive bits on opening night. Angela Timberman, who has appeared at the Guthrie and other theaters all over town and is part of the Jungle's collective leadership, was surprised but game when called on to play a teacher whose sock puppet offered safe harbor to our fearful character. Timberman took off her shoes and socks, created a sock puppet, and nailed it. (So remember to wear clean socks to this show.)
Another notable stage player, Nathan Keepers, also was game as he played the character's not-all-clued-in father. And Jennifer Baldwin Peden was among the audience members called on to share bits of the character's circle of life.
Brilliant comes from the Latin for beryl, the mineral in precious stones. It is fitting as Johnson certainly shines in this faceted work that revels in life.
Every Brilliant Thing
Who: Written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe. Directed by Meredith McDonough.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 14.
Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
Protocol: Vaccine or negative test, along with masks, required.
Tickets: Pay-as-you-are ($45 recommended),jungletheater.org.