Next to Normal
At the Writers (Nichols) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe – “Next to Normal” at the Writers Theatre tells the intense story of a middle-class suburban housewife who suffers from bipolar disorder and how her condition impacts on herself and her family. Obviously this is not your conventional happy tap dancing musical but as a theatrical and emotional experience it nails the audience for a full two plus hours. The show won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and has touched the emotions of audiences through the United States as much as any dramatic work of this decade.
The heroine-victim in “Next to Normal” is Diana Goodman, wife of Dan Goodman and mother to teenagers Natalie and Gabriel (that statement is not as straightforward as it seems, but to be more specific would be unfair to the narrative as it unfolds). The show begins at the present time. Diana has been enduring her condition for 16 years and has sought medical relief in all manner of forms—medication, psychotherapy, and ultimately memory-robbing electric shock treatment. Nothing has worked, in spite of encouragement from her physicians. But the insurmountable problem is that medical science doesn’t know how to cure bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic depression) and physicians can only speculate on its causes. Meanwhile, the illness is tearing Diana and her family apart.
“Next to Normal” creators Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) tell much of their story primarily through song. The music shifts in style variously from pop to country to rock music, guiding the scenes between realism and fantasy. It’s the fantasy with its delusions that displays Diana’s mind in turmoil.
What accentuates Diana’s pain is her awareness of her condition, yet her inability to control it. The endless round of visits to doctors leads to frustration, anger, futility, and a sense of helplessness. Diana in her lucid moments is an intelligent, articulate woman. Then she goes off the rails, without warning, disappearing into her diseased and possibly suicidal world while her family watches in confusion, despair, resentment, and sometimes denial.
The Writers production fits deftly on the thrust stage of the Nichols Theatre. The intimacy of the Nichols denies the production some of the more striking visual effects possible on a larger stage, but director David Cromer superbly accommodates the action to the playing area, using the aisles and Regina Garcia’s two-level set. Keith Parham’s evocative and often startling lighting effects underscores Diana’s mood swings. The characters and stage hands unobtrusively move props on and off the stage, allowing the action to flow without interruption. There’s not much physical action in the show but Cromer has orchestrated a dynamic visual presentation that evokes the swirling emotions that engulf Diana and her family.
The acting can best be described as total immersion. There are six actors in the show, including one who doubles as two doctors. Keeley Vasquez brings Diana to life with stunning passion and range of feeling—normal one moment and frantic or hostile or desperate the next. It is a performance of breathtaking commitment that never strikes a false note, qualities that shape the entire ensemble effort.
Vasquez is surrounded by complementary performances that fuse the production into a seamless whole. Our heart goes out to David Schlumpf’s Dan, the well meaning and caring husband who is being psychologically eroded by frustration and guilt. Perhaps the most complex character after Diana is her daughter Natalie. Credit Kyrie Courter with a portrayal of a teenager who wants her mother back and fears losing her to her mental disturbance. In her desperation Natalie turns to hostility and ultimately to drugs, the focus in effect a play within a play. Alex Levy is a charmer as Natalie’s high school stoner boyfriend, a likeable teenager who tries to draw the girl away from the black hole of Diana’s ailment. Liam Oh is Gabe, the son who likely is the root of Diana’s bipolar miseries. Gabriel Ruiz is spot-on as a pair of doctors who try with guarded optimism and little success to cure Diana’s agonies.
David Cromer’s staging is illuminating and tense without resorting to sentimentality or melodrama. The show doesn’t descend to a bogus happy ending. The characters are granted no false hopes that Diana magically will return to normalcy. Real life honestly rendered doesn’t work that way. The narrative seems inevitable as it progresses, whether in moments of raw realism or in nightmarish flights of fancy. This is my third “Next to Normal” production and it is by far the finest in realizing the show’s artistic potential. I can’t conceive of the work being presented any better. My one quibble is that the Writers offstage band sometimes plays too loudly, competing with the performers to be heard clearly.
In addition to its brilliance as drama, “Next to Normal” grabs the viewer as a ”There but for the grace of God go I” experience. The excellent notes in the show playbill state that 5.7 million people suffer from bipolar disorder in this country, and for some viewers this show may possess special relevance. The playbill describes the bipolar condition in admirable layman’s language and rewards reading before the performance begins. “Next to Normal” is not only an absorbing theatrical and dramatic experience, it performs a public service by enlightening viewers about an illness that rivals Alzheimer’s disease in its heartbreaking assault on the human mind and spirit.
The show gets a rating of
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