Next to Normal

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

May 1, 2012

"Next to Normal" is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

“Next to Normal” is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

Free Play Theater Cooperative’s rock musical Next to Normal, which ran this past weekend in Schwartz Hall, examines the life of a suburban family fighting against matriarch Diana’s (Abigail Clarke ’12) chronic mental illness.

Diana is bipolar (though at one point she explains, “Bipolar doesn’t quite cover it.”) and experiences bursts of manic energy. However, she tends to feel anxious and depressed most of the time. Mental health is not often the subject matter of musical theater, a genre known for its incessant good cheer. But Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt, uses the form to its advantage, allowing the characters to express in lyrics what they cannot say to one another directly.

The majority of Next to Normal is conducted in song, rather than through dialogue. Additionally, the characters often sing complex vocal arrangements consisting of different lyrics, which combine to make one complex sound. Director David Benger ’14 dexterously staged number after number—37 in all—often without pause between the songs. Next to Normal takes on social issues, lambasting the pharmaceutical industry and the malaise of suburban America. As such, the writing could have veered off into preaching, but the show is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

Clarke (who was also the production’s vocal director) played the complex role of Diana with simplicity and elegance. Her desperation for a “normal life” was palpable and heartbreaking. It was Jared Greenberg ’12 as Diana’s son Gabe, however, who truly stole the show. While I won’t reveal the play’s central revelation, of which Gabe is the focus, I will say that Greenberg was perfectly suited to the part.

Gabe may speak a few lines of dialogue, but I don’t recall them. Rather, the character sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him. Additionally, Greenberg was rarely still on stage, instead leaping, twisting and bopping to every song—his movements nearly balletic in form.

I found Gabe to be, if not Next to Normal’s villain, then at least the embodiment of the family’s torment. He was often crouched, gargoyle-like and ready to pounce, on the stage’s second level. In “I’m Alive,” the show’s most electric number, he suddenly springs down into the main level, proving that he is, indeed, bursting with life.

Gabe (Jared Greenberg) sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him.

Gabe (Jared Greenberg) sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him.

Dan (Justy Kosek ’14), Diana’s endlessly patient husband, is the crumbling rock in the sea of swirling, overwhelming emotions that drenches the show. While Kosek could not quite match the other performers in terms of vocal ability, his portrayal of a lost soul clinging to a promise made 20 years ago was wonderfully depressed. Mental illness, like all diseases, affects not only the sufferers but their families as well. In the song “I’ve Been,” Dan tries to explain to his ailing wife why he’s remained with her all these years. He utters the crushing line, “Mine is just a slower suicide,” with agonizing acceptance that defines his adult life, and the audience’s hearts break.

Diana’s pharmacologists, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden (both played by Dotan Horowitz ’12) are similarly stumped, though of course they are not as invested as Diana’s family in the outcome of her treatment. The Doctors serve primarily as Kitt and Yorkey’s mouthpieces to address the everyday evils of over-drugging patients and electroshock therapy. Though the roles are laced with over-the-top antics, I found it problematic that Dr. Madden places Diana’s cure in her own hands. He implores her to, “Make up your mind to be well.” Kitt and Yorkey are right: Vicodin and lithium may not be the answer, but victim blaming isn’t either.

Dan and Diana’s other child, Natalie (Sarah Hines ’15) plays off her father’s need to believe with feelings of fury, abandonment and self-centered loneliness. Natalie puts up a sarcastic, over-achieving front in order to cope with the ground zero that is her home life. Her boyfriend Henry (Nick Maletta ’13), a quiet stoner who sees past Natalie’s hard shell, is Next to Normal’s only fully likeable character. Paradoxically, he’s also the least fleshed out. The most we hear about his back-story is a throwaway line about how his mother is “in denial” about his drug use. Maletta possesses a strong, clear voice, necessary for Henry’s falsetto solos. I only wish that he and Hines had more chemistry on stage. Hines plays Natalie well, but so willfully that it didn’t appear she really needed a boyfriend to get through, even as she teeters perilously close to the brink herself.

Next to Normal is a powerful, gut-wrenching look at living with the invisible, uncontrollable monster named depression. Kitt and Yorkey won several Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for their play. It may almost be too good—after seeing Saturday’s performance, I had difficulty concentrating on anything else. The haunting lyrics followed me out of Schwartz Hall and hung over me like a personal raincloud for the rest of the day.

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