BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Fulton Theatre
Historically, theater has done a poor job at portraying mental illness. Harvey's Elwood P. Dowd is seen as nothing more than a free spirit. R.P. McMurphy of Cuckoo's Nest fame is described as a fun-loving, bad boy. Such depictions may be considered interesting, but they are far from authentic. Next to Normal currently playing at the Fulton is a sincere, well-rounded examination of how mental illness impacts not only the individual, but their entire family.
Anne Tolpegin stars as Diana, a suburban mom and wife, struggling with a long-term bipolar disorder. Her circumstances begin to deteriorate at the beginning of the show. Her current medications no longer effectively address her manic behaviors, changes in mood, or increased hallucinations. She needs help.
Tolpegin is magnificent in her portrayal. So often on stage and screen, for better or worse, an actor's depiction of mental illness is totally externalized. We might see sobbing , hysterical laughter, jerky body movements and other transparent cues about THE ACTING. Tolpegin doesn't rely on such tricks. We learn about her through her dialogue and song, but we are not always privy to her private internal struggles and suffering. This is the difference between a caricature and a character. Well done.
Mark Campbell plays Diana's husband, Dan. Dan is a loving and caring man, with what seems like endless patience. Campbell is very effective, especially in spots where he uses a bit of falsetto, to elicit sympathy from the audience. Dan represents the notion that sometimes even the very best just isn't enough.
Abigail Isom and Devin Lewis play Diana's teenage children, Natalie and Gabe. Isorn plays Natalie as a perfectionist. A young woman fooling herself into believing that enough good grades and piano practice can ever compensate for her flawed relationship with her mother. Her rendition of "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" beautifully captures her impressions of the family dynamics.
Lewis's portrayal of Gabe is justifiably complex. The audience's understanding and feelings towards him may change as the story unfolds. He has definite chemistry with Tolpegin which is on full display in the many scenes that they share. The utilization of the unreliable narrator in this show may come as a punch to the gut for the unexpecting audience members.
Alex Walton is a lot of fun as Henry, the stoner boyfriend of Natalie. He brings some comic relief to a show about a very serious topic. However, he also is well-rounded and authentic in his characterization. It is very easy to see why Natalie might turn to him to bring some lightness and joy into her life.
The sixth member of the cast was Allen E. Read who plays Diana's psychiatrist, Doctor Fine. I feel that Read was somewhat miscast. His does not come off as the extremely competent and experienced authority figure. The family needs to place unconditional trust in this individual in order to agree to his unorthodox treatment plan, and that wasn't conveyed to me. I almost feel that he was cast to take advantage of a brief bit where he is described as a "rock star" and impressively burst into a full screech ala Led Zeppelin.
The set design seemed unnecessarily abstract and unfocused. There were thick white lines on the floor dividing the acting space into unequal partitions. Hanging from the ceiling were intersecting poles of various colors and sizes. A bench on the far side of the stage converted into a blocky square toilet at one point. There were dozens of large, blank family photos hanging from the wall of the theater. While this was a clever in-joke after some of the events of the second act, they serve more as a distraction up until then. I suppose what my criticism boils down to is that I don't think the abstract set design compliments the otherwise very realistic tone of the acting and story.
The four-member orchestra blended very well. I was concerned that this jamming rock score might overshadow the vocals, but they were perfectly balanced. Kudos.
Next to Normal is a highly moving and very authentic show that tackles the struggles of mental illness head on. Just like life itself, be prepared to laugh a little and cry a little.
Tickets and show details can be found here.