Delusional “bipolar depression with manic episodes,” isn’t usually the stuff of musical theater, but Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book/lyrics) have set the malady to music and turned it into art, winning three Tony’s and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. NEXT TO NORMAL has just made its Boston premiere at the SpeakEasy Stage Company sensitively directed by Paul Daigneault, and its harsh truths are disturbingly resonant. I left the theater deep in thought, and more than a little troubled– exactly what a profound, complex, well-executed piece of theater is supposed to do.
NEXT TO NORMAL features a tour de force ensemble singing the heartache of a family riding the roller coaster of a mother’s mental illness. Kerry A. Dowling is Diana, the mother in question, and though shrill at times, her voice keeps us on the edge of her turbulent psyche. It’s an exhausting performance for her and the audience; as we watch her grapple with her sanity and the specter of a family tragedy, Dowling wrings every last bit of sorrow, anxiety, and finally what passes for calm resolve out of the part. She even manages to locate the dark humor in lyrics like: “My psycho-pharm and I, are in a lover’s game; he knows my deepest secrets– I know his name.”
Christopher Chew is deeply affecting as her long-suffering and unwittingly enabling husband Dan. Sarah Drake as teenage daughter Natalie, caught in a labyrinth of anger and relentlessly dashed hopes, broke my heart. Michael Tacconi as the bright shining son manages to be vulnerable and almost diabolical at once, while Michael Levesque as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry is clear voiced, smart, and loyal–a younger version of Natalie’s father before the years of emotional wear and tear.
It took me awhile to hitch my wagon to this score– but I surrendered to its force and clarity which supports the brilliance of the book. I was truly shaken by its bitter truths, that hope can be an obstacle if it prevents us from feeling the ground beneath our feet, that hidden memories and unresolved loss can haunt our lives, that our personalities are the result of a strange alchemy– biological and experiential, and that what we must all finally accept is that “imperfect”– something “next to normal”–is perfect.
See NEXT TO NORMAL at the SpeakEasy Stage Company– extended by popular demand to April 22!