They look like any other normal family: a father as breadwinner, a mother as caretaker, a deadbeat son, and an overachieving daughter. But this family is working hard to hide their grief and gain control over their mother’s spiralling mental health. Next to Normal is a musical about coming to terms with the past and finding a middle ground everyone can feel steady on.
Diana (Miriam Rihani) has been unwell for a long time, going in and out of hospital, switching between doctors, and trying to find a medication routine that satisfies her. She’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety, possibly brought on by the traumatic death of her son. She was young, had just married her husband Dan (Trent Gardiner) in a shotgun wedding, and trying to raise a baby while only fresh out of adolescence herself. It’s a heartbreaking story about the lasting impact grief can have on a family and the tangible changes the death of a child can induce.
The pacing of the story is a bit odd with the reveal of Gabe’s (Christopher O’Shea) death delayed an inordinate amount of time while Diana’s treatment, memory loss, change of heart, and exit are all relegated to the second half of the show. Before the audience knows Gabe is a hallucination, a significant amount of introduction and plot has already taken place. Having the crux of the narrative introduced after approximately three or four songs doesn’t allow a lot of room to later explore Diana’s relationship with her illness and her family (as they live) or to unpack her treatment and the side effects. Her therapy, hospitalisation, ECT, release, and all the events leading up to her decision to leave her family is somewhat rushed because of the unnecessary amount of time spent pretending Gabe is still alive.
The depiction of mental illness in this musical is cookie-cutter and old school, typical of mainstream media’s understanding of this realm of medicine. Diana’s symptoms are characteristically zany: worrying too much, talking nonsense, losing track of time and huge boughts of manic productive energy, jumping into pools, forgetting how to drive, setting fires, etc. And her treatments are similarly focused on the physical with prescriptions for all the big name American pharmaceuticals, hospitalisation, and ECT. She is spoken of as being broken and needing to be fixed or cured with no consideration of the catalyst for her illness nor coping mechanisms or investigation into the psychological effects of living with a mental illness. After over 15 years of treatment, this is the first instance of her seeking therapy that attempts to combat the traumatic beginnings of her illness rather than just fighting the symptoms. All in all, while it’s clear the text is attempting a more complex depiction of the crazy mother trope, there is so little nuance in the representation of the unwell, their doctors, or the aftermath of treatment that it comes across as a quirky plot stimulating devise and not an actual character study.
Gardiner and Chelsea Taylor, who plays daughter Natalie, are stand outs in the way they navigate the tension between their characters’ desires and the needs of Diana. Gardiner has a powerful stage presence and a voice to match whereas Taylor is gentler and a bit more suited to the unconventional song style of this musical. Brent Dolahenty who plays a slue of doctors was a surprisingly charismatic performer in all the brief moments he was given. In particular, Taylor and Gardiner’s performances in the final scenes of the production were touching in their vulnerability and resignation.
Kathryn Thomas’s direction is clearly very passionate, though perhaps misdirected at times. Gabe’s characterisation as a Puck-like teen sulking around corners and seducing his parents into delusions was an odd choice. As were the set and lighting design, both of which were jumbled and created a bit more distraction than they were worth. Large portions of the production appeared to take place at night as the actors stood just out of their spots in the blue background wash in a manner that indicated the lighting wasn’t properly configured for the stage and their movements.
On the other hand, the band was quite good. Lead by musical director Steve Dula, the playing was chipper, though occasionally the full drum kit could be said to drown out the less powerful voices in the cast. An additional flute was a lovely touch of whimsy throughout some numbers.
Perhaps the real downfall of this musical is how much it attempts to achieve in this challenging format. Lyrics are not always the most appropriate way to convey a story and can turn touching scenes into awkward tongue-twisters. But, if you’re looking for something contemporary and different, maybe even reflective of your own household dynamics, Next to Normal is one to check out.
Next to Normal is running at the Performance Space at St Aidan’s from August 10th – 25th.