Beyond the textual content – mental health, spousal discord, substance abuse – Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal examines the intrinsic imperfections that comprise the human condition. A mother wracked with grief battles psychosis as she battles her relationship with her son and its effect on the family. In the wake of her distress, her husband flounders to keep the family above water and her daughter runs the risk of following the same self-destructive path. Brian Yorkey writes characters with more imperfections than graces, yet they remain sympathetic. Though the characters may be flawed, Tom Kitt’s challenging vocal score demands the near flawlessness of the performers. With cacophonous harmonies and numbers written to be belted full voice from start to finish, Kitt’s emotional score and Yorkey’s gritty lyrics call for great talent and commitment in order to truly transport an audience.
For Deep Dish Theater Company’s production of Next to Normal, directed by Paul Frellick, the cast of six dedicated themselves to their characters and their work. Their March 2nd performance reflected the humanity, flaws and all, written into the characters and mirrored the humanity in the society for which the play was written. The actors did not belt the whole show; they did not always make it to the astronomical high notes in the choral melody. But, as slightly less than rock stars, this cast checked their egos at the door and made the performances their own, honoring the show’s message of love in the face of great odds.
Lisa Jolley (Diana) created unique and meaningful relationships with each of Diana’s family and various doctors. When portraying characters suffering from mental illness, actors face the temptation to “play crazy” instead of exploring the truth of a character and how mental illness alters that truth in their perspective. Jolley’s performance conveyed the love of a mother and wife, distraught with grief and disoriented by mental instability. Her compassion for her fellow actors permitted the audience to see beyond Diana’s condition and begin to question how society and professional medicine had failed her. Likewise, John Allore depicted Dan, husband to Diana, with the simultaneous strength of a man in love and vulnerability of a man who, despite his most desperate attempts, can no longer provide for the love of his life. Jeff Vizcaino mirrored this compassion in Henry. Sensitive, honest, and durable, his dogged faithfulness to Natalie reflects all of Dan’s devotion to Diana. Abigail Coryell (Natalie) conveyed the all too frequent reality of teenagers today. Over-committed, insecure, and often unattended, Natalie struggles to live up to the expectations her parents set for her, ones first set for her brother. Gabe, played by Wesley Miller, clings to remaining significant in his mother’s life. Miller carried off the vocal challenges of the role effortlessly. His passion to endure, coupled with his tenderness toward his mother, provided depth to the character beyond an impressive vocal score. Mark Ridenour, as Diana’s multiple psychiatrists, played comedy as “the rock star” of psychiatry and tragedy as a doctor blinded to the humanity of his patients by the strict science of medicine.
Rob Hamilton’s set, although bare, provided a blank canvas on which the actors created the world of the play. Scott Marlow’s lighting design added drama throughout the performance and meshed particularly well with Hamilton’s simple set of white panels.
The weight of the message fell on the cast to convey, which they did with honesty and humility. Next to Normal lays open the difficulties we all face in one way or another. No matter in what form our demons arrive, Next to Normal challenges us first to face them, then to forgive them, and move on.
This production of Next to Normal continues at Deep Dish’s performance space in University Mall until Sunday, March 17. It then completes its run March 22-24 at the Cary Arts Center. Please view the sidebar for more details.