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'Every Brilliant Thing' at Heartland Theatre reminds us to live life in the moment

A actor with silver hair and casual clothes gestures to an unseen audience member. The stage is starkly dressed with two chairs and a colorfully painted checkerboard floor.
Lauren Warnecke
"Every Brilliant Thing" features veteran Peoria-based actor Tim Wyman, who originally didn't consider auditioning for the part. He was drawn to its heartwarming message and the opportunity to improvise with audience members.

Please note: This story mentions mental illness and suicide.

Before actor Tim Wyman’s final dress rehearsal Wednesday, he rushed from Peoria to Normal after coaching a youth basketball game.

“The game was not good,” Wyman said. “My boys lost and they’re eighth-graders, so this was their final game ever.”

Wyman said he finds the drive soothing—it’s a trip he’s taken often in the past seven or eight years since first connecting with Heartland Theatre Company. A staple in central Illinois’ theater scene, Wyman is the sole actor appearing in "Every Brilliant Thing,” opening Friday.

“There were a lot of tears,” Wyman said of his team, “but it was a good year. They learned a lot and I had fun. So, success all the way around.”

Wyman brought “Every Brilliant Thing” to Heartland as a member of its play-reading committee. But he never expected they’d agree to it — or that he’d wind up as its sole performer.

“I had no intention of doing it,” he said. “It is a difficult thing for a guy my age to learn 40 pages, or an hour and five minutes worth of monologue.”

As auditions drew near, Wyman ultimately decided to give it a go, enticed by the script and improvisational elements baked into the play. Wyman uses audience members to bring the story to life. So, attendees might find themselves reading from a cue card, acting a scene with him or holding a half-eaten candy bar.

“I’m calling seven or eight people up for brief moments,” Wyman said. “I promise not to embarrass anybody.”

And it takes a village, of course, to make a play — even one written for a single actor. Sound, light and set designers, stage management and marketing gave “Every Brilliant Thing” the same treatment as any other play at Heartland.

Director Aaron Sparks, a frequent face in Bloomington-Normal now based in North Carolina, also was drawn to the challenge of rehearsing an interactive play.

Assistant director Lynda Rettick was “indispensable” to the process as the person who most often sat in as the audience for Wyman. Invited guests and Heartland board members also attended rehearsals so Wyman could practice how he’d spontaneously respond to the audience.

“That was really crucial,” Sparks said.

A director in blue jeans and a black shirt puts one foot on a raised stage with a wooden trunk, two chairs and dark black curtain behind.
Lauren Warnecke
Director Aaron Sparks brought in special guests and Heartland board members to allow Wyman chances to practice interacting with the audience. He said assistant director Lynda Rettick was "indispensable" to the process.

Hope and perseverance

“Every Brilliant Thing” is about someone who grows up worrying if their mother will attempt suicide — again. He creates a list of small joys to try and help his mother feel better — ice cream, things with stripes, and a Ray Charles song, to name a few. The list is a reminder to embrace the little joys and live in the moment.

For Wyman, it's personal. One of his three children suffered from anxiety, depression and self-harm beginning around age 12, he said. She’s now a mother herself and doing well.

“It was a long, arduous journey,” Wyman said. “Bad parenting mistakes — you know, you don’t know what to do. But she ended up on the right side and she’s moving things forward.”

Sparks was similarly drawn to directing the play for the way it addresses how mental illness affects families. His father-in-law has severe bipolar disorder.

“This play is really funny,” he said, “and Tim is a really engaging performer. Although it addresses these things that are a little bit heavy — and it addresses them in a realistic way — this play is ultimately about hope and perseverance.”

Duncan Macmillan's 2013 script is based on Macmillan's short story, “Sleeve Notes.” Stand-up comedian Jonny Donahoe originated the unnamed lead character, depicted by Wyman here. He's unnamed because he can be any of us. Macmillan makes special mention that the word "narrator" is never heard by the audience or listed in the program.

But Wyman does narrate those little moments that matter a lot. Like the sound of a needle striking vinyl and the warm tone of uncompressed physical music media as you lay in your bedroom reading the liner notes. “Every Brilliant Thing” is an invitation to revel in those. For Wyman, the “brilliant things” are those youth basketball games. And the drive to and from Peoria.

“The positive things that I carry forward in life are just the genuine appreciation of the moment,” he said. “The people you meet. The experiences you have.”

Sparks said his 26 years of volunteering with a sleep away camp for kids with cancer and other blood-related disorders reminds him to, as he said, “experience life in the present tense.”

“It’s something that is so joyful and life-affirming,” he said. “It taught me the value of being present — being where my feet are.”

In terms of “brilliant things,” though?

“I think the theater’s pretty brilliant,” Sparks said. “I’m really lucky to be a part of it.”

Every Brilliant Thing runs Feb. 2-17 at Heartland Theatre, 1110 Douglas St., Normal. Tickets are $19 at 309-452-8709 and heartlandtheatre.org. Recommended for mature audiences.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.