Most people who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it enough…
Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, opened last Saturday night at the Citadel. When I read the description of the play, all I knew was that it was about a family who struggled with dealing with a relative’s mental illness. I do not like knowing more about the plays I go see, because part of the charm is to be surprised during a performance, to enjoy the twists and the feeling of awe that you get as a result. And because I do not like spoilers myself, I will not include them in the first part of this review—if you don’t want me to spoil anything for you, when you see *Spoiler alert* stop reading—and just go see Next to Normal. It may break your heart, and you may cry—just like myself, my friend, and half the audience members in this past Wednesday’s performance—but that is exactly why you should go see it. There is a reason the play won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The story begins with Diana (Kathryn Akin), a mother and wife struggling with bipolar depressive disorder with delusional episodes, talking about her wonderful family, their flaws and strengths. You see her daughter, her son, and her husband.
They have allowed you into their home. The stars shine in the background, and heavy rain sometimes shows outside through the wall-tall windows. The set is a house that resembles a construction site, with long metal pillars that possibly allude to the state of the family—a work in progress, a never ending battle with a chronic illness. The house has three levels that the actors use creatively as they move dynamically from one floor to the other. Lightning is placed in between floors to give an extra dramatic effect to musical numbers, and action usually happens on at least two floors.
The fast paced dancing and parallel singing, the actors performing in different floors, and different scenes happening at the same time, they all seem to resemble the kind of chaos the family experiences. Because just as Diana struggles with her delusions and her highs and lows, so does her family – in particular her daughter Natalie (Sara Farb), a young talented musician that dreams of getting away from the chaos that haunts her house as she tries to manage her life and her relationship with an ecofriendly marijuana user called Henry (Michael Cox). All they want is to be normal.
Next to Normal is the kind of musical that really honors its title, as this play has little unsung dialogue. There are about 37 songs that last in average 3 minutes long ( and the show is 2 hours and 25 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission). The music is engaging, with a little bit of dark humour and swearing, but it is blunt and to the point with emotionally fitting tunes. Kathryn Akin has an amazing voice that perfectly echoed the pain of Diana, with an energy that reflected her euphoric states, and Sara Farb (Natalie) portrayed the role of troubled teenager in a way that evoked sympathy. But my favorite performance was that of Robert Markus (Gabe) as the son, singing beautifully and with such emotion that if was often his numbers the ones that cause me to tear up. That, and I found his very energetic dances and use of the set quite engaging.
The authenticity of this family’s struggle with the pain and chaos that mental illness brings to their family makes Next to Normal a heartbreaking play. The songs are beautifully written and sang with an incredible amount of emotion, and their criticism of modern psychology is accurate and relevant. This play gave an excellent example of the complications of treating emotions as a hard science when the human brain is still barely understood.
The story begins to develop after Diana has a manic episode, and her husband of 18 years, Dan (Réjean Cournoyer), convinces her to see yet another doctor that prescribes her medications. But the number of side effects that come with the medications can be overwhelming, and Diana stops taking them due to the many complications and because she misses the highs of her condition (which is beautifully portrayed in her song “I Miss the Mountains,” a metaphor of the feeling that her manic episodes causes her). And as the medications fail, a scary possibility arises: Electroconvulsive therapy, a little understood procedure that delivers bolts of electricity to the brain, but that has proven effective (to a point, as we see in the second act) in severe depression. Yet the treatment comes with its own significant side effects, one of which is memory loss.
But why is Diana suffering from mental illness? What was her trigger? The twist is presented about halfway through the first act, and it will give you chills.
Have you ever dreamed about someone you miss, and find yourself disappointed to wake up? If they were gone forever, and your mind gave you the chance to keep them alive and with you, in exchange of your sanity, would you pay the price?
It is dinner time; Diana, Gabe, Dan, Henry and Natalie are getting ready to eat. Then Gabe leaves the scene as Diana comes back to the table with a birthday cake…
“It is somebody’s birthday!”
A moment of silence follows, and disbelief, as Dan sadly sings “He is not here.” It is then that we all learn: Gabe has been dead for 16 years.
Through the years, Gabe grew up in Diana’s mind to become an 18 year old shadow in her brain—a delusion she holds dear. This is yet another story about closure, and what happens when you do not find it. Unlike “Falling: A wake” or “Pith!,” Diana knows exactly what happened 16 years ago, but the pain was so unbearable that she became delusional. And it is not hard to imagine, after you see this play and experience Diana’s pain, why she had such a hard time letting go.
Gabriel is a ghost that hunts the family—a mother that became ill with pain, a father that never dealt with the loss, a daughter that lives in her brother’s shadow. It was shortly after this realization that I could hear a person in the audience sobbing, somewhere on the other end of the theatre. I shuddered, and couldn’t help but cry as well; the play presented their pain in such an effective way that it was impossible not to feel it, not to sympathize.
The best scene, and by far my favourite moment in the production, was after Diana visits Dr. Madden (John Ullyatt), a new therapist that suggests a different approach to treating her illness. Diana has made a decision and has chosen it is time to let go of Gabe. As she sings “I Dreamed a Dance,” she imagines herself dancing with his son, when suddenly Gabe invites her to his world, a world where they can be together (“There is a World”). Diana slowly responds to her delusion’s call, and walks with him towards the wall-tall windows, as they open to let her into a lighted, smoky area. It is a beautifully painful scene in which Diana chooses death over life, and the possibility to forever end her pain and be with Gabe. It was the use of the set, the amazing voices of the actors, the use of light and smoke that creates a metaphor of committing suicide, and the lyrics of the two songs, that make this one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have seen in theatre.
I was mesmerized by the use of the windows to separate the worlds, often used to show Gabe as a lingering shadow, a reflection in the window that’s not really there. The third floor also was used to create an illusion of omnipotence, as it is almost exclusively his, and he uses it to watch over his family, as they deal with the aftermath of his death.
I think that the reason Next to Normal is one of the most powerful plays I have had the chance of seeing is because it presents, in a beautiful way, the unimaginable pain of a parent losing a child.
I praise especially Director Ron Jenkins and Musical Director Don Horsburgh and Theatre Calgary, but also the entire Citadel crew, for a basically flawless, powerful play.
And thank you for bringing Next to Normal to Edmonton.
This is a play I will never forget.