Sure, a play about depression may not seem like an uplifting night at the theatre, but Balagan’s production of the Tony-award winning Next to Normal delivers a bevy of laughs, dramatic tension, and up-tempo songs. It also explores thought-provoking themes (family, loyalty, sanity, relationships) while opening up the imbalanced and chaotic world of someone suffering from bi-polar disorder and depression–an often generalized and “taboo” subject in today’s culture. While the tragedy is apparent, the stellar cast creates empathy from the very beginning of the show (there were more than a few patrons in my row crying near the end of the first act, myself included), and opens up a door on a tricky subject, forcing the audience into the uncomfortable position of watching the downward spiral of a woman who could easily be one of them.
Diana Goodman (Beth DeVries) lives with her upper middle class family in a ubiquitous suburban neighborhood. Her daughter Natalie (Keaton Whittaker) is brilliant and university-bound, her husband Dan (Auston James) is loving and devoted, and her son Gabe (Kody Bringman) is a typical teenage boy–an elusive smartass coming and going at all hours. The only problem is that Gabe died when he was an infant and Diana’s illusions of him are merely symptoms of her bi-polar disorder. As the family struggles to cope with her cavernous ups and downs, Diana spins through several therapists, dozens of medications, and a myriad of treatment plans. Meanwhile, Natalie is going through her own downward spiral, Dan tries to keep a constant smile, and Gabe won’t leave his mother alone.
Next to Normal is directed by Brandon Ivie, and he knows how to pace a musical. The characters move around the stage in a near dance sometimes–coming and going with perfect speed, passing each other on their way to activities. The visual significance of the movement becomes most clear when we realize that Gabe is dead–his presence is the most heavy-handed (in a good way); he always seems to be present, and even when he isn’t interacting with Diana he is in the back of the room, leaning on doors, watching from the side of the stage. He is haunting the family, but not in actual presence–in memory. Every single actor is amazing–I say this having seen the production at the 5th Ave. last year and being disappointed in the singing quality–aside from a few moments of voice cracking from James and a few times when the music was louder than the singing, everyone in this show seems to have their entire heart into the performance. DeVries stuns as Diana, embodying the manic ups and depressive downs of someone who suffers from bi-polar disorder. The way she uses her body language is powerful, and her facial expressions pair with it for a sad and beautiful representation of the pain of a mother who has lost a child.
The set design (Robert J. Aguilar and Pete Rush) was simple–two doorways at the back of the stage, a dining set, a sideboard, a living room lounge chair. But the simplicity allows the actors to move around quickly and easily, and doesn’t distract from the performers or the storyline. The lighting (Robert J. Aguilar) was as important as the set, as the Erickson Theatre is relatively small. It set the tone for what was happening on stage–often when Gabe was in the room it would dim, or it would focus on stage action while two other characters were frozen in darkness in front of the stage, then cut to them for more scene that needed to be set in a different place, helping utilize a space where multiple set changes are difficult.
While Diana’s mental illness is certainly an extreme case, Next to Normal brings this big issue into the light. Lots of light. And throws in a few powerful songs. But most of all, Balagan’s production is completely successful in humanizing a character that might otherwise carry a heavy stigma. Diana isn’t raving or homeless; she is a pretty, blonde middle class woman you might see sitting in the carpool line (although we find out she’s actually too anxious to drive), proving that more often than not, crazy can actually appear quite normal.
Next to Normal runs through March 22. Tickets here.
Above, left to right: Auston James (Dan), Beth DeVries (Diana), and Kody Bringman (Gabe) in Next to Normal. Photo Credit: Jeff Carpenter