In “Next to Normal,” normal is distinctly not ordinary. And sometimes in the face of severe manic depression, close enough to normal must be enough. It is that hope that concludes “Next to Normal,” a powerful, painful and emotional production, an award-winning musical drama of family dysfunction and love.
Manic depressive disorder is scary and even scarier when it appears in someone you love. It’s a chronic disease that is hard to treat in part because the highs are so good and in the mania, the lows are easily forgotten. Physicians experiment with drug cocktails and in recalcitrant cases, use electroconvulsive therapy to try and reset the brain. “Next to Normal“ is about how a family copes with manic depression, their losses, trials, love and hope in the progression of treatment and episodic loss of control.
Parthy McCandless directs “Next to Normal,” and brings out the best of her cast in a production that was technically complicated with more than 30 musical numbers and a lot of blocking. “What I asked them to do and what they’re bringing to the performance is to open up and let us see the heart,” Parthy says. “The actors really connected with their characters; they’re up there really feeling it and letting us see them.” “Next to Normal” is about bipolar disorder, but in a family the pain can be caused by anything, really. “Because we care about each other and we love each other, we can look towards the light by holding together and working together,” she adds. “There’s pain but because we care, we can ultimately get through it. To me that’s the message.”
McCandless's intent to come from the heart and show that love can heal comes through loud and clear.
“Next to Normal” is tightly cast. Diana, played by the amazing Jennifer de Puglia, is bipolar, and her family revolves around her with anger and love and frustration. Diana seems to suck all the air out of the theater, so crazy is her illness that it leaves her family gasping for breath. Too, de Puglia uses her voice to create a towering vocal presence, challenging the other cast members to match her power and depth.
Diana’s husband, Dan (Brian Day), is so loving, so patient and caring, your heart breaks as his does every time Diana slides into that other universe. Brian Day’s debut with Next Stage is also that of his son, Braden Day. Braden plays Gabe, Diana and Dan’s son who died in infancy, a child who is never forgotten but not acknowledged except in his mother’s hallucinations. Casting father and son as father and son is both a dramatic and human opportunity that fulfills every expectation, bringing unspoken strength to their performance.
Natalie is Diana and Dan’s daughter, and Andrea Hochkeppel plays the role perfectly, with just the right teenage angst and the very real pain of being Invisible Girl in the family. Natalie acts out, she rejects her family, she’s nothing in the face of an illness that consumes the family. Natalie sees the future too, fearing that her mother’s lot is her own. It takes Diana’s acknowledgement of her daughter and the love of Henry, played by the talented Eric Solis to bring about healing. In the end, almost normal is good enough for this family.
If there is a weakness in the play, it is in the scripting of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden’s roles. Alex Boyles is indeed a rock star, a truly psychopop performer, but the these psychiatrists in the script are uncaring and impersonal, locked into the medical mystery of a disease that barely has a name and is so poorly understood. I love that in the end, Boyles is allowed the optimism of talk therapy to help a lost and heartbroken husband.
Jennifer de Puglia, Brian Day, Braden Day, Andrea Hockkeppel and Eric Solis command the stage with the beauty and power and pain of their performances, their voices coming together in anger, defiance and love. These emotions are reflected in the color of the backdrop and spotlighted brilliantly, each track isolated in a spare, steel structure that frames the performance. The audience is stilled, waiting and watching as the music carries the narrative through the progression of emotion, the progression of disease, the futility and impotence of medical science, ruined dreams, forgotten memories and, in the end, acceptance, love and hope.
No ordinary production, “Next to Normal” is extraordinary.
This Craterian productions is a short run and “Next to Normal” has only two more scheduled performances, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29, and at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30. The production has adult language and themes and may not be appropriate for ages 13 and under. Tickets are $28 (students $10), and may be purchased online at www.Craterian.org, by calling 541-779-3000 and at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., Medford.
— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.