Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Next To Normal"

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note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth

"Next to Normal"

Reviewed by Sheila Barth

The headlines screamed with horror --- Salem mother of two slashes her children, douses them with lighter fluid, then sets fire to their apartment.

Family members, social workers, teachers, and friends never saw it coming. They said she was incapable of committing such an act.

Today, one in four Americans have relatives or friends with mental illness. Luckily, many haven’t had to face such hideous circumstances.

Tom Kitt’s and Brian Yorkey’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical “Next to Normal,” tackles mental illness, probing into the mind of a delusional, bipolar mother, taking us inside, on her manic-depressive up-and-down roller coaster, and its effects on her placid husband and teen-age daughter who, try desperately to deal with and “understand” her.

In only three weeks’ rehearsal time, SpeakEasy Stage Producing Artistic Director/Director Paul Daigneault has helmed this superlative surreal production, which leaves audiences breathless, in tears, and with renewed hope.

As in real life, the effect of a mentally ill person on loved ones during manic-depressive episodes is devastating, wreaking a terrible toll. Diana Goodman (magnificently portrayed by Kerry A. Dowling) has suffered with depression and bipolar condition for at least 19 years. She’s bored, dissatisfied,as she and the family start “Just Another Day”. Diana’s demeanor diminishes as she manically sets out bread slices all over the floor, faster and faster, saying she’s getting a jump on making sandwiches. Her husband Dan, (whom Christopher Chew portrays with sensitivity), and teen-age daughter Natalie realize Diana has become manic again and seek help for her. Diana’s solace rests with her beloved son Gabe, an ever presence in her life. Gabe constantly dominates her attention. Her fixation on her teen-age son is crucial, but we won’t reveal why. In the meantime, Natalie is ignored. They’re “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” they sing.

Diana’s been through it all - psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, medicines with debilitating side effects, and suicidal thoughts. Nothing helps, but she’s willing to try other recommended treatments for the sake of her family.

In real life, Sarah Drake (Natalie) and Michael Tacconi (Gabe) are friends and classmates at the Boston Conservatory. Together, they’re riveting. As Natalie sinks further into depression and steals her mother’s prescription medicine to ease her pain, Gabe charmingly controls his mother’s psyche.

There’s something eerie about Gabe, especially when Diana ultimately decides to undergo electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a last resort, when all else has failed her. Gabe grabs his mother‘s gurney, clutching it, trembling. He’s fearful she’ll succumb to ECT’s major side effect - memory loss. Tacconi is mesmerizing as he acrobatically propels himself into high gear, singing “I’m Alive”.

Diana fails to attend Natalie’s piano recital, which affects the teen-ager profoundly, despite her supportive boyfriend, Henry (Michael Levesque). Diana’s meltdown and Natalie’s descent into drugs and depression draws a gut-wrenching parallel, in their telltale, “Wish I Were Here”.

Throughout Diana’s treatments, set designer Eric Levenson’s large background panel and doors are emblazoned with Seaghan McKay’s projections of dictionary and medical definitions and pulsating electrical impulses. Varying wallpaper patterns change scene sites.

This vibrant production, (which has been extended to April 15 because of its popularity), with its exemplary cast,Jeff Adelberg’s mood-setting lighting and Aaron Mack’s sound designs is so realistic, theatergoers are awestricken as they invade Diana’s subconscious. They’re tormented by her memories, delusions, and hallucinations and share her snowballing frustration. Some weep quietly. Others identify with the Goodmans. During a recent talkback, psychologists, pharmapsychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts were moved by the play’s stark honesty.

This isn’t a coincidence. The actors said they visited families with relatives afflicted with mental illness. Stars Kerry A. Dowling and Christopher Chew consulted with psychiatric experts, patients and family members at McLean Hospital. They also visited former Mass. Governor-presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, a vocal ECT advocate-patient.

And Chris Caron --- who portrays doctors Madden and Fine and their opposing treatments --- said he attended a few psychotherapy sessions as research, to solidify his roles.

Daigneault calls the play extraordinary. It is. Besides being a moving drama, what makes “Next to Normal” so outstanding is it’s a vibrant musical, with Kitt’s rock opera, ballad beats, rock pulse, and Yorkey’s stirring libretto and lyrics.

Music Director Nicholas James Connell says he and his five musicians (who sound like an orchestra), play almost constantly throughout the play. “You as an audience go through Diana’s highs and lows, constantly moving forward,” he said. All of the characters are searching and praying for “A Light in the Dark,” even at the end. Hope seems distant, but they’re learning to cope.

SpeakEasy Stage and the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are co-sponsoring post-show sessions of “Ask the Doctor” after Saturday matinee performances. NAMI, a state resource, provides free mental health, family-based education, family and peer support and grass roots advocacy.

BOX INFO:Boston premiere of Tom Kitt’s and Brian Yorkey’s award-winning musical, appearing through April 15 with SpeakEasy Stage Co. at Boston Center for the Arts, Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances:Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Check for show-related events. Tickets start at $30; $5 discount for students, seniors; under 25, $25; student rush, $14. Call 617-933-8600 or visit

"Next to Normal" (9 March - 7 April EXTENDED TILL 22 APRIL)
@ Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide