SpeakEasy's NEXT TO NORMAL Struggles with the Highs and Lows of Mental Illness

Music by Tom Kitt; book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey; directed by Paul Daigneault; music direction by Nicholas James Connell; scenic design, Eric Levenson; costume design, Tyler Kinney; lighting design, Jeff Adelberg; sound design, Aaron Mack; projection design, Seághan McKay

Cast in order of appearance:
Diana, Kerry A. Dowling; Gabe, Michael Tacconi; Dan, Christopher Chew; Natalie, Sarah Drake; Henry, Michael Levesque; Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden, Chris Caron

Extended through April 22, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston; tickets available at 617-933-8600 or online at www.bostontheatrescene.com

The SpeakEasy Stage Company of Boston has mounted a stirring, if not completely satisfying, production of Next to Normal, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning pop-rock musical that explores an average American family’s attempts to deal with the shattering effects of mental illness. At times softly preachy but at other times devastating in its emotional impact, Next to Normal lays bare the dysfunction that occupies every waking hour for Diana, the wife and mother suffering from bipolar disorder, her loving but exasperated husband Dan, and her damaged teenaged children Gabe and Natalie.

Kitt and Yorkey have managed to focus most of their penetrating words and music on the very palpable stresses, hopes, and fears of this seemingly “normal” suburban family that would give anything to live up to that nondescript moniker. “Just Another Day” charts what for them has become ordinary – a day full of anxiety and constant adjustment to what for any other family would be atypical and unexpected. “He’s Not Here” takes on multiple layers of meaning for Dan, first pleading with Diana to let go of her unhealthy attachment to her now grown son and then expressing his own feelings of inadequacy in connecting with a wife completely absorbed by her own illness. “Perfect for You” and “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” are heartbreaking revelations about Natalie’s sense of desperation in trying to find her place in the family and the world. 

Song after song brings us deeper and deeper into this family’s gut-wrenching reality. “I Miss the Mountains” is Diana’s urgent plea to feel and experience life free of the numbing haze in which her psychotropic medications enfold her. “I Am the One” has Dan, Gabe and Diana screaming for attention and affirmation – each trying frantically to assert his or her needs and to be heard and acknowledged for simply doing the best they can under impossible circumstances. “I’m Alive,” first sung as Gabe’s insistent adolescent demand to be a part of his mother’s life, in the second act becomes his sad resolution of moving beyond a relationship that doesn’t work anymore. “You Don’t Know” is Diana’s savage testimony that no one can possibly know what it’s like to live in her painfully unbalanced head and skin. “Wish I Were Here” is a haunting ensemble piece that illustrates just how pervasive the isolation can be for people whose lives revolve around coping with their own or a loved one’s mental illness.

Despite Next to Normal’s unrelenting determination to expose the raw nerves, tension and sadness associated with its subject matter, Kitt and Yorkey have also managed to reveal the love, passion, and optimism still beating inside this family of tortured souls. After years of non-stop agony and uncertainty, Diana, Dan and their children still hope for and work toward redemption. It is this powerful contrast between the spirit of endurance and the very real burden that each member of the family bears that grips the audience and never lets go. Ultimately Next to Normal resonates with the heightened expression of normal emotions. After all, who can’t relate to love, loss, troubled relationships, failed communication, and shattered dreams?

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Jan Nargi Jan Nargi is owner and creative director of JMN Publications, a marketing and public relations firm based in Boston, Mass. She provides consultation, communications, and writing services to clients in the health care, entertainment, financial, retail, manufacturing, non-profit, and sports industries. As a freelance writer, Jan has had hundreds of articles published in business and high-tech magazines. Theatrically, she has reviewed, written, directed, acted, produced, sung, danced, managed publicity, pounded nails, and designed lighting and sets. Jan has even acted in the occasional B-movie, playing a zombie, a psycho shrink, and a clueless news reporter. You may visit her on the web at www.jmnpublications.com.

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