Ro Boddie in “Every Brilliant Thing” at Cygnet Theatre.

By Pat Launer

If you ever wanted to get into the act, now is your chance.

Cygnet Theatre is presenting “Every Brilliant Thing,” a highly interactive, immersive one-man, one-act show that requires extensive audience participation to tell the life-story of a young man whose mother keeps trying to kill herself.

The first attempt happens when he’s seven years old. He decides to make a list of Every Brilliant Thing, which is to say, everything he can think of that makes life worth living.

No. 1 is ice cream.

Over the course of his life, as he struggles with the effects of his traumatic youth and the fear of a similar fate, he keeps returning to the list, until it reaches a million.

Whenever he has to interact with anyone else, charismatic actor Ro Boddie solicits the help of an audience member — to play his school guidance counselor, first girlfriend, college professor, even his taciturn father.

Not everyone is great at this kind of improvisation, but each one called upon rises to the occasion with warmth and geniality, adding another layer to the poignant and often funny 90-minute production.

Each time he mentions a number on his list, someone who’s been handed that entry, before the show, reads it aloud. Like:

  • No. 4 is the color yellow
  • No. 324 is Nina Simone’s voice
  • No. 823 is skinny-dipping
  • No. 993 is barbers who listen to what you want

This structure sounds gimmicky — until you put it in the hands of a consummate, empathic actor like Boddie and an expert director like Rob Lutfy.

The play, written by Duncan Macmillan with British comedian Jonny Donahoe, allows for flexibility and personalization. While we’re learning the story of the fictional character, we’re also hearing about the performer’s own history. So we really feel connected. We ache for him in the truly touching moments. And thrill to his last-minute, sweat-inducing insistence on high-fiving the entire audience.

By the end, we have applauded our fellow observer/participants, and we want to hug this virtuosic performer who sings, plays guitar, dances and entertains irresistibly. And when he tells us the things that should or shouldn’t be done or said in the face of suicide, we sit up and listen.

It’s all about coping with mental illness through laughter, theater, and a little help from your friends.

  • Every Brilliant Thing” runs through Sept. 16 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town
  • Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday nights, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights, 7 p.m. Sunday night, with matinees at 3 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday
  • Tickets ($25-$60); are available at 619-337-1525 or
  • Running time: 90 min.

Note: For this production, Cygnet has two Community Partners:

Vista Hill — providing individuals and families with the guidance and resources they need to improve and enhance their quality of life. 

NAMI San Diego, the National Alliance on Mental Illness — San Diego’s voice on mental illness, providing support, education and advocacy.

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at

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