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

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

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

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

For the most part this SpeakEasy Stage production, helmed by company founder and artistic director Paul Daigneault, strikes an even balance between anguish and recovery. Oddly enough, however, that balance is precisely what prevents this Next to Normal from delivering the knock-out punch that’s expected. So, too, does the balance of power in the ensemble. Unlike the Broadway production, which was driven by the Tony Award-winning bravura performance by Alice Ripley as the bipolar Diana, this production puts more emphasis on the family dynamic than on the firestorm at the center of the frenzy. While this directorial choice may illuminate the subtler elements in Kitt and Yorkey’s book and lyrics, it also “normalizes” Diana’s illness somewhat, robbing her of her wildly swinging highs and lows. Without an all-consuming aching narcissist serving as a catalyst for everyone else’s reactive behavior, Dan, Gabe and Natalie have a tendency to come across as selfish and whining. It would seem that a musical about a woman and family dangerously off balance would benefit from a more explosive sense of people teetering on the brink.

Fortunately, Daigneault’s cast is completely sympathetic, with absolutely heartbreaking performances by Christopher Chew as Dan and Sarah Drake as Natalie. These two, in particular, wear their battered hearts on their tattered sleeves, wresting every possible complex emotion out of their edgy songs and touching scenes. Chew is a mass of contradictions, steadfast, loving, and gentle on the surface but a cauldron of pent up frustration and confusion underneath. His earnest struggle to make a normal life for his family – despite the massive elephant in the room that he works steadfastly to ignore – turns what could be textbook psychobabble into riveting real life drama. Drake ignites her Natalie with a fire so keen that we see in her the danger that could be lurking should her inherited predisposition toward mental illness be tripped out of dormancy into full-blow action. Her self-loathing is as much a result of her mother’s inability to nurture her as it is her own fear that she will become the person whose illness she hates. Drake’s is a remarkable performance – as intuitive and potent and well sung as any that has been seen on the Boston stage this season.

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

This brings us to the very talented Kerry A. Dowling as Diana. As hard-working and committed as she is in this production, reaching far beyond her usual comfort zone to mine the depths of a disturbed and disturbing character, she is simply not right for the role. With her legit soprano and always affable appeal, she can’t quite lose her softness and warmth in the detached and hallucinatory world that is Diana’s. The effort shows as she strains to sing in a pop-rock belt that doesn’t come naturally to her, and her manic episodes lack the desperation and danger that we do see in Natalie when she falls from her pedestal of perfection. This is not to say that Dowling doesn’t have ample strengths. In her quieter moments, especially with her son Gabe (Michael Tacconi), she shows the glimmer of what life could have been had a traumatic event not catapulted her into an abyss of depression that now alternates with uncontrolled bursts of hyperactivity and delusions. When Diana is lucid and reflective, Dowling is profoundly moving.

SpeakEasy's NEXT TO NORMAL Struggles with the Highs and Lows of Mental IllnessIn support, Tacconi as the enigmatic Gabe also seems pushed a bit beyond his vocal range, but he is both ominous and deeply affecting as the Number One Son who gets all of Diana’s misplaced affection. Michael Levesque as Henry, Natalie’s geeky stoner boyfriend with a heart of gold, provides steadfast understanding that seems borne of his own unexplained family dysfunction. In the dual roles of Dr. Fine (the psycho-pharmacologist) and Dr. Madden (the psychotherapist), Chris Caron rises above the didactic psychiatric material to flesh out two kindly if slightly distant professionals frustrated by the limitations of their own medicAl Fields. Through Caron’s scenes with Diana and her family, Kitt and Yorkey manage to make their points about the inadequacies of talk therapy, medications, and electro-convulsive therapy (electro-shock treatment) in dealing with bipolar disorder.

While some have criticized the denouement in Next to Normal – Diana ultimately eschews treatment altogether in search of her lost soul – in this SpeakEasy production her choice clearly opens the door to healing for the rest of her family. It almost doesn’t matter what may happen to Diana. What happens to the people left in her wake is what stirs and won’t let go.

PHOTOS BY CRAIG BAILEY: Christopher Chew as Dan, Kerry A. Dowling as Diana, and Michael Tacconi as Gabe; Michael Tacconi, Kerry A. Dowling, and Christopher Chew; Sarah Drake as Natalie, Christopher Chew and Kerry A. Dowling; Kerry A. Dowling; Sarah Drake and Michael Levesque as Henry


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