Attending Battle Ground High School came with its share of built-in drama, according to 2015 graduate Desiree Roy.
“There was a bit of a suicide epidemic going on,” Roy said.
As many as two students per year died by suicide during her time at Battle Ground High, she said.
“It was never talked about enough,” she said. “We need to have more community discussions, because (mental health) is a part of life that’s never addressed enough.”
Matters of mental health and staying alive get addressed head-on in “Every Brilliant Thing,” a one-actor play that Roy directed. The live performances Friday and Saturday as well as Nov. 12-13 at Battle Ground Community Center are free.
This local production of the 2014 off-Broadway sensation sees Roy reunited — and trading places — with Stephan “Cash” Henry, the Battle Ground drama and English teacher who first guided her toward the stage, she said. Now Roy, who is 24, directs Henry, who is 55, in what he calls the acting challenge of a lifetime.
In “Every Brilliant Thing,” Henry starts at childhood and conveys the whole biography of a man who lives in the shadow of family suicide.
“The storyline starts with me as a 7-year-old,” Henry said. “The narrator is just a little boy when his mom makes her first suicide attempt, and he starts making his list of, ‘These are all the reasons I think life is worth living.’ ”
As Henry’s unnamed character grows up, the titular brilliant things evolve from ice cream and “Star Trek” to love, marriage and more.
“The audience gets to watch him mature and see how his relationship to the list changes,” Henry said. The audience plays an important interactive role, too, as they choose cards and read lines that help guide the story. The material is handled with honesty, humor, seriousness and respect, he said.
“It’s a community therapy session, in a way,” he said.
Never stop learning
Henry “was the one who got me into theater and acting to begin with,” said Roy. “I’ve always liked the theater and acting, but I’m very introverted. I didn’t know if I could handle it. But when I got into it, it felt so right. From that point on I’ve just been in love with it.”
Roy graduated in 2020 from Western Washington University with a degree in theater. With the coronavirus pandemic raging, she returned to this area not at all sure how to pursue her chosen profession, she said. Eventually she turned to Henry, her high school theater mentor, with a new idea: She would direct him in a play that speaks to young people in Battle Ground.
“I saw ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ in a class at Western and I just broke down in tears,” Roy said. “It’s the first media I’ve seen discussing suicide that is not triggering. It doesn’t sensationalize and it’s very uplifting. I’d never seen something like that before.”
Henry, who has directed many Battle Ground High School productions, was delighted at the suggestion that he get back in the spotlight after too many years away, he said.
“I got my B.A. in acting in 1989 and I miss it,” he said. “I used to act in professional theater companies around the country … and then I used to do two or three shows a years in Portland.”
Then he got busy as a teacher and director, he said.
“But when Desi approached me, it was kismet. She’s one of my all-time superstar students and she’s brilliant,” he said. “It’s the ultimate compliment and the ultimate joy to know someone you’ve had an effect on wants to come back to you.”
Roy has been a creative, supportive director, Henry said.
“She’s been giving me the freedom to discover the character within myself,” he said. “That’s the way it should be. She asks me insightful questions and I’m excited when I realize I don’t know the answer right away. That’s what it is to be an actor: You never stop learning.”
The show is free but donations are requested for The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide-prevention and crisis-intervention nonprofit agency based in California.