Next to Normal brings mental illness home to a middle-class, white, American family | Theater | Indy Week
Pin It

Next to Normal brings mental illness home to a middle-class, white, American family 

It's telling that the committee that conferred the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Drama upon Next to Normal celebrated its examination of mental illness as "expand[ing] the scope of subject matter for musicals." The reason: Musical theater has long been inhabited by the distinctly non-neurotypical.

The examples abound: the sensitive depiction of Clara, a woman whose development is arrested after a head injury in The Light in the Piazza, and the central characters in two celebrated rock musicals—The Who's Tommy and Pink Floyd's The Wall. The denizens of Sondheim's Assassins and Weiss' Marat/Sade occupy altered states of mind (while the tribe in Hair gleefully pursues them). And none of the principals in Sweeney Todd, Phantom, Sunset Boulevard or Kiss of the Spider Woman exactly qualifies for the mental hygiene award.

I think Next to Normal's putative breakthrough derives from two things. It sympathetically explores the life of Diana, a wife and mother who is reduced in one doctor's notes to "bipolar depressive with delusional episodes." Moreover, it also brings mental illness home—or at least to a certain type of home: a middle-class, white, American family. Many earlier stage treatments were content to exploit and sensationalize (and, in doing, distance us from) mental disease. By comparison, both Normal and Piazza treat it as a not-so-simple fact of their characters' lives and probe its causes, effects and potential outcomes.

Or at least that's the case until playwright Brian Yorkey indulges in one too many twists of plot that appear too reminiscent of the work of M. Night Shyamalan. Though it's not enough to zero out the achievements that have come before, a late and far-too-clever turn needlessly calls into question the validity of Diana's marriage, her diagnosis and, inescapably, some of the issues Next to Normal has tried to raise.

On opening night, music director Nancy Whelan's sextet ably explored an engaging and contemporary Tom Kitt score that strays only occasionally into the generic. But Yorkey's deft, insightful lyrics repeatedly were sacrificed to a muddy sound mix, exacerbated later by a possible speaker malfunction on the right side of the house.

Under Cody Cunningham's direction, Jessika Brust soulfully explores bewildered central character Diana, but a too-stoic Kenneth Griggs displays little emotional bandwidth, even in his most disclosing solos. Kelsey Walston made increasingly interesting discoveries as she moved into her character, troubled daughter Natalie, on opening night, but Dalton Hood seemed far too old to be her potential high-school boyfriend, Henry. While it's unclear if the lack of development we ever see in Gabe, Natalie's brother, is a function of the script, Kevin Ferguson ably supports as Diana's two doctors.

Though Next to Normal brings us closer to an unquiet mind, we never quite make it inside. That journey awaits another musical.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Head cases."

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Theater



Twitter Activity

Comments

I'm wondering why Dorfman specifically chose the Death and the Maiden quartet - deriving from the song Der Tod und …

by trishmapow on Forgiving is not forgetting in Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden (Theater)

Most Read

Most Recent Comments

I'm wondering why Dorfman specifically chose the Death and the Maiden quartet - deriving from the song Der Tod und …

by trishmapow on Forgiving is not forgetting in Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden (Theater)

I'm not a theatergoer, so it was off my usual path to see this production. The small/ mighty cast approached …

by Aims Arches on A Superlative Adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando Packs Centuries of Insight into a Fleet Eighty Minutes (Theater)

I personally am remarkably intrigued to see this production but since I can't drive myself to it I will sadly …

by Ryan Oliveira on David Harrower Lives Up to His Name in Blackbird, a Challenging Portrait of Abuse (Theater)

I wholeheartedly agree with the position that there should be more structured, civic support for the thriving arts community in …

by ShellByars on Common Ground Closed. Sonorous Road Might Be Next. Is It Curtains for Small, Affordable Theaters in the Triangle? (Theater)

© 2017 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation