Theatre Review: “Next to Normal” at the Phoenix

I saw the Phoenix Theatre’s production of “Next to Normal” a couple of weeks ago.  I am still thinking about it, especially as more and more people see it and ask me what I thought of it.  Not everyone likes it, but everyone wants to talk about it.

I loved it.

It is a musical, but it feels like a deeply engaging play with great lines that happen to be beautifully sung.  The music is unusual but the notes fall into place in a satisfying way.  The show doesn’t feel like “Musical Theatre.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with musical theatre…unless it’s not what you’re in the mood for.)

“Next to Normal” nails so many things about mental health and grieving and family patterns over generations and the medical profession and buffers and invisibility and denial and happiness and fidelity and more…without being black-and-white or even too judgmental or prescriptive about any of it.  It invites emotional response AND intellectual discussion.

It is intense and it made me cry, but it isn’t depressing.

The ensemble cast under the direction of Bryan Fonseca and musical director Kevin D. Smith is splendid.

Should you go see it?  Of course you should, if for no other reason than it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama plus some Tony Awards.  Go see it and form your own opinion.  I bet it will be a strong one.

The show runs Wednesdays-Sundays at the Phoenix for two more weeks, through February 24, 2013. While you’re at the theatre, I’m going to write the rest of what I want to write about this show without worrying about spoilers.

Seriously, it’s better if you go see the show first and then come back and read the rest of this post.

If you don’t like spoilers, don’t say I didn’t warn you about the spoilers below.

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The Basic Plot

The plot of the piece is that a mom/wife named Diana has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  Her husband, Dan, and their teenaged daughter, Natalie, have lived with her erratic behavior for quite a while now and are as worn-out as she is.  They hope that a new doctor will be able to cure Diana.  In the meantime, Natalie never brings friends home from school because she is too afraid her mom will be acting crazy.

No, actually, the plot is that there is this nice suburban family: a mom named Diana, a dad named Dan, a teenaged daughter named Natalie, and a teenaged son named Gabe.  One day, Natalie’s new boyfriend, Henry, somehow slips in to dinner…and when Diana brings out a huge cake blazing with candles because “it’s somebody’s birthday!” Henry and the audience realize what Dan and Natalie have known for a while now: that only Diana and the audience can see Gabe.  He is the young man her baby would have become if he hadn’t died at eight months old when Dan and Diana were teenagers themselves.

The appearance of the birthday cake means that yet another medicine prescribed by yet another doctor has failed to help.  So…when another doctor suggests ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, what used to be called “shock treatment”), Dan (eagerly) and Diana (reluctantly) sign the waiver for it.

The Characters

This is mostly Diana’s story, but each of the other characters gets a full life via the script and the actors’ portrayals.

Will Hutcheson plays Gabe, the endearing/terrifying imaginary young man that is Diana’s secret confidant, comfort, and nemesis.  Sometimes an almost demonic rage flits over his features: he may be a figment of Diana’s imagination and illness but he does NOT want to be smoothed out of existence by meds or any other treatments, and he cheers when Diana flushes her pills down the toilet.  But at other times Will shows us the joyful, loving son (and attractive dance partner!) that Diana knows Gabe would have become.  We believe it, too, and we understand why she does not want to let go of him.

Charlie Clark plays Dan, the good and patient man that promised to stay married to Diana for better or worse and is therefore keeping his word.  He is as supportive of her as he knows how to be.  He does his best to make love to her.  He takes her to doctor after doctor.  He hugs her and calms her down when the madness takes over again and she is in a panic, covering the kitchen floor with bread slices to “get ahead” in making cheese sandwiches for the children’s lunches.

Yet Dan never, ever says his son’s name.  Later in the play, after Diana comes home from the hospital and has been so affected by the ECT that she doesn’t recognize even her husband or daughter, Dan shows her family photos and other mementos to help her recover, but he hides everything that might remind her of Gabe.  One of the great things about Charlie’s nuanced portrayal of Dan is that we don’t want to blame Dan, either, for dealing with his grief as best he can.

Still, a turning point is when Diana does remember everything and shouts to Dan, “Say his name!  Say his name!  Say his name!”

When Diana is finally able to let go of Gabe – not ever forget him, but move on with her life on her own – Dan sees the teenage Gabe that Diana has seen all along.  The simple “Hi, Gabe,” “Hi, Dad!” conversation between father and son is both heart-rending and healing to watch.  Like something breaking and repairing all in one moment.  There is nothing demonic or avaricious in Gabe’s face now, only a pure and innocent gladness.  Dan’s response is more complicated, but it includes relief.

I didn’t take this scene to mean that Dan has now caught the bipolar disease or that the teenaged ghost of Gabe is now going to haunt Dan but rather that Dan is finally at a place where he can begin to process his own grief in a meaningful way, without the excuse, the buffer, of Diana’s problems.  Especially if he accepts professional help, which he does, at the very end.

Speaking of professional help, Eric J. Olson does a brilliant job of portraying several different doctors in such a way as to cumulatively show that doctors (and therapists and any kind of helper) are human, too, for better or worse.  Even the kindest, most compassionate doctor has his or her own baggage and blind spots.  Each is doing the best he can with what he and other members of the medical profession know at the time, which is never everything.  There is no such thing as a doctor that is perfect for every patient.  About one doctor, for example, Diana sings “He knows everything about me, I only know his name.”  I’m still percolating on the appropriateness of that one.

Eric also does a great job of portraying Diana’s fantasies and hallucinations about some of her doctors.  Man, if you want someone to play a sexy rock star, ask Eric J. Olson.

While all this is going on with the grown-ups, daughter Natalie is doing her best to grow up almost all on her own, using the only role models available to her.  Olivia Huntley shows us Natalie’s fragility, her resentment, her strength, her confusion, her despair, her concern and love for her parents, and her yearning to have hope for her future.  Natalie is a perfectionist and a workaholic, doing anything she can think of to make her parents wake up and see her.  She’s not being the stereotypical self-involved teenager – she truly has absent parents.  No one comes to her piano recital, no one notices when she gets drunk or tries her mom’s meds to “quiet the hunger.”

No one except Henry, the pot-smoking jazzy contrast to Natalie’s (until recently) straight-laced classical music personality.  He admires her and he comes to care for her, in spite of her resistance.  Without knowing that he is echoing Natalie’s father’s pattern with Diana, he promises to do the best he can to always “be there” for her while she eventually promises, I think (or maybe she just wonders if they can be) “perfect for each other.”  They sing something like, “I’ll be perfect for you…Maybe I’ll be crazy, we don’t know…but that will be perfect, too.”  As with Dan, the audience is left wondering how they will move forward, and we feel hopeful about their futures, but we don’t know for sure how their stories will turn out.  Tyler Sarkis gives Henry an appealing earnestness and just the right, believable blend of mature compassion and youthful inexperience.

And Emily Ristine as Diana?  Outstanding.  I admired the whole cast, the whole show, but I leapt to my feet to applaud at the end mostly because of Emily’s exquisite singing and completely believable portrayal of the wife and mother, Diana.  Emily conveyed Diana’s complexity, vulnerability, and strength in subtle ways that wowed me.

I was surprised when I heard later from more than one person that they thought Emily was too young for the role.  That thought never entered my mind during the show, and I still say she was completely believable, both as Dan’s same-age wife and as teenager Natalie’s mother.   Thinking about it now, I realize that Emily’s presence or her energy or something came across as matured-by-life enough to me, while at the same time conveying that she was stuck in her youthful past, so that I didn’t think about the actor’s physical age.  Or maybe some beautiful women just read as ageless to me?  Maybe it’s because I don’t know Emily Ristine at all in person?  I don’t know what else to say about this, and I respect the fact that what does not distract one person does distract another, so I don’t need everyone to agree with me.  It is art; therefore people’s responses to it are varied and personal.

However, I’m not going to change my mind on this point.  I thought Emily Ristine WAS “the mother,” was Diana.  And my heart just went out to her.

Themes – The Medical Profession

I already mentioned the theme of the medical profession’s fallibility.  Near the end, Diana reveals that back when her baby died, a doctor told her that if she wasn’t “over” her grief after four months, it would be “toxic grief” and therefore wrong.  I felt outrage on Diana’s behalf.  I do believe there is such a thing as toxic grief – it’s what happens when someone hangs on to the feelings of sadness and loss for too long – but I also believe that the right amount of time for grieving is unique to each person.  How dare that doctor set that arbitrary amount of time and then scold Diana with it!

On the other hand, some of the doctors do help Diana.  There are hints at Diana’s problems being genetic and/or inherited, too.  I love that the show offers a nonjudgmental opportunity for audience members to think about their own experiences – positive and negative – of the medical profession and their own family patterns and experiences.  The show offers the comforting idea that I’m not the only person whose healing/personal growth/path to adulthood/whatever hasn’t followed a Step One, Step Two, Step Three, Ta-dah! pattern.  Maybe no one’s does.

Themes – The Importance of Feelings

Early on in the show, when doctors are trying one medicine after another with Diana, one set finally makes her say groggily, “I don’t feel anything.” The doctor says, “Good!” and writes on his clipboard, “Patient is stabilized.”

“What?!” I wanted to shout.  “Not feeling anything is NOT good!  Our feelings are an important source of information!  Doc, you are the one that’s nuts!”

And in another part of the show, when Diana sang “I miss the mountains” as she poured out the pills that “stabilized” her, I flashed back to two girls I’d known when I was younger.

One was a 12-year-old girl in my cabin group when I was a camp counselor.  This was years ago, when it was still unusual for children to be taking prescription medicine for behavioral issues.  (And yes, I know I’m being judgmental when I say that.  I have my own biases.)  This girl came to camp with her “normal” sister, who told me that “you have to watch my sister because if she can get away without taking her pills, she will.”  But what broke my heart was that the drugged sister – who was a behavioral handful, I admit, even with the meds – confided to me during a hike one day that she wished she didn’t have to take the pills because they “make me forget who I am.”

The other was a woman in college – a co-worker at the restaurant where I waitressed – whose girlfriend broke up with her because she was “too manic when she went off her meds, and she’s always going off her meds.”  I was so naïve, I thought their lesbianism was the most interesting thing about them.  Now, however, years later, what I remember most is the other woman telling me that she knew the pills made her easier to live with, but if she didn’t take them, she got these wonderful surges of creative energy that produced art she was proud of.  “How can I give that up?” she asked me.

Writing this now, I’m also remembering a conversation with a friend a few years ago in which I was ranting about the evils of prescription medicines.  My friend listened, and then quietly told me that her depression meds had saved her life, that even now they gave her enough of a break in which to do the talk-therapy work she needed to do in order to get truly better.

Which shut me up and cracked open my mind a bit more, too.

I tell you all this to show that “Next to Normal” is the kind of theatre piece that makes you remember and want to share stories from your own life.

I love that the title of this show, “Next to Normal,” refers to a conversation that Diana has with her daughter, Natalie, near the end.  Diana tries to promise her daughter a normal life, now that she (Diana) is truly on the mend, but Natalie says with love in her voice something like, “Normal is quite a ways off, Mom.  Let’s go for next to normal.”

Theme – Wounds

I also love that part of what helps Diana finally move forward is the realization that maybe some wounds never do heal completely.  She says/sings something like “What if what’s broken is not merely my mind but my soul?”

Again I flashed on a person from my own life: a widower I dated a few years ago that cried every time we went out.  He dutifully shared his feelings with me and then allowed himself to cry because someone had told him that was what he was supposed to do to “get over” his wife’s death.  I did my best to be a friend and listen compassionately because I liked him and I do believe in the healing power of “sharing feelings and crying” but after a while the whole thing just got old.  He confessed to me that it was getting old for him, too.

“I just don’t understand it,” he said.  “I cry…why don’t I feel better?”

I didn’t have an answer for him.  He tried dating other people, changing his job, moving away, but he still died young.  I went to his funeral and many of his close friends and family said he had died of a broken heart.  I only sort of accept that.  He had physical health problems that finally caught up with him, but he was taking pleasure in the music that he loved, and in his new job, and his new location, right up to the end.  I admire his bravery in trying to keep going without his wife.  Some wounds never do heal completely but we can find ways to live our lives fully even so.

I wish I could take my friend to see “Next to Normal.”  I bet he would agree with me that one of the best lines from it is “You don’t have to be happy to be happy to be alive.”

Themes – Visibility

The theme that resonated most strongly with me was the subtle theme of “visibility.”  Something that I’ve been working on lately is becoming more visible to myself rather than waiting for other people to see me clearly and acknowledge me.  It’s a life journey, of course, but seeing the characters in “Next to Normal” struggle in their own ways with the idea of “visibility” was useful and comforting to me.

Most poignant was young and very-much-alive Natalie’s feelings of being invisible to her parents, no matter how many perfect scores and awards she accumulated.  Her parents did not abuse her at all.  But they didn’t SEE her.

I also realize as I write this that even though the show is wonderfully non-judgmental about mental health-related experiences in general, it does not say that being “non-judgmental” is the goal.  Being able to see clearly in each moment and make wise decisions is the goal.  The life journey.

The Design Elements

Bernie Killian’s multi-level set seems made of jagged pieces of white vellum framed in black.  Combined with Nolan Brokamp’s emotional (I mean that in a good way!) lighting design, it does a clever job of enhancing the themes, contrasts, and actions of the show.

One element in Ashley Kiefer’s costume design made my mental wheels spin for several moments during the show: Natalie’s black coat.  It was shortened from very long to pretty short.  You can tell because all of the extra fabric was doubled under instead of being cut off, making for a distractingly bulky hem.  It looked weird, but I finally decided it must have been done on purpose, as another way of showing that nobody was really parenting Natalie (maybe she hemmed it herself without any help from her mom or other more experienced seamstress), and that people in the family were hiding stuff that needed to be let go of.

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Whew!  I feel as if there is even more still to think and talk about with this show, but if I don’t post this today I may never get around to it.  If you go see “Next to Normal” and feel like talking about it afterwards, let me know.

Credits

Music by Tom Kitt.  Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey.

At the Phoenix:

  • Producer, director: Bryan Fonseca
  • Musical director:  Kevin D. Smith
  • Assistant director: Brandon Allmon-Jackson
  • Set design: Bernie Killian
  • Lighting design, technical director: Nolan Brokamp
  • Choreographer: Mariel Greenlee
  • Assistant stage manager: Chelsey Wood
  • Stage manager intern: Hailey-Brooke Barham
  • Run crew: Courtney Blossom
  • Costume design, props: Ashley Kiefer
  • Sound mix engineer: Ben Dobler

Band:

  • Conductor and piano: Kevin D. Smith
  • Keyboard 2: Kevin Kiser
  • Cello: Laura Cones
  • Guitar: Patrick Wright
  • Bass: Greg Geogeine
  • Percussion: Larry Molnar

Box Office

Call the Phoenix Theatre at 317-635-PLAY or visit their website – phoenixtheatre.org – for more information and to buy tickets.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

(Photos for this post were taken by Zach Rosing, provided by the Phoenix Theatre, and are used with permission.)

©2013 Hope Baugh

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