Encore Michigan

‘Next To Normal’ at Monster Box heartfelt and luminous

Review March 07, 2020 David Kiley

WATERFORD, Michigan–Whenever I have seen Next To Normal, the “rock” musical about a family coping with a bi-polar wife and mother, I find myself looking around the theatre a bit for people who seem more emotionally engaged. It’s the kind of story that reaches inside of people who have a bi-polar person in their circle of loved ones.

The writing is uncannily on target. Book and lyrics in the show, by Brian Yorkey, which won multiple Tony Awards and a Pulitzer, captures the situation close to the bone. Diana, played by Diana Turner, is unmoored in her condition, triggered some 18 years earlier when her infant son died from a poorly diagnosed illness. Her husband, Dan, played by John DeMerell, is devoted to his wife, and filled with hope and anguish all at once. Daughter Natalie (Maryanna Lauter)) is 16 and having to grow up too fast, as the whole family is centered on Diana’s care and her relationship with her son Gabe in her PTSD bi-polar world.

One of the fascinating aspects of Next To Normal is the discussion within the story about treatments for bi-polar disease. Is it better to be numbed and smoothed out by pharma, or is it better to feel the pain dished out by life and the world? Is a treatment like shock therapy worth it, even if it works to some degree, if it unhitches you from your memories and connections to loved ones? Without those connections built up over a lifetime, is life, in fact, worth living for someone who is heartfelt. Without connections, we might as well be taxidermy.

This production at Monster Box Theatre, directed by Barbara Weisserman, has its roots in an earlier production by PAPA Weez performed at Slipstream Initiative in Ferndale last November. It is not a co-production, but several cast members are repeating their roles: Diane Turner as Diana; DeMerell as Dan; Lauter as Natalie; Sanitate as Henry; Alex Macksoud as Gabe.

When Diana first meets her psychotherapist, he appears to her as a seductive rock star. Expectation coloring reality, the hope is for a miracle and his Jagger-like air-guitar whirls is what help might look like to someone in a desolate place where there seems to be no further roads of hope. Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden are both played by Bob Hotchkiss.

The piece of the story that grounds this musical play is the relationship between Dan and Diana. Turner plays the part beautifully like a balloon on a bridge trying to sort out which way to go and why she is there at all. DeMerell simply leaves it all on the field, running below her balloon, trying to grab hold of the string. He loves her, and on their worst days has no thought to leave her. He is anguished, yet seems so sure it will all come out okay. The ache of the play is in Dan’s eyes and voice more than it is in Diana’s.

The music in the play finds the notes of the pain that is in this illness. Dan Bachelis is music director, and he and drummer Stacy Binelli are upstage, set in front of tangle of lighted wires designed by Weisserman and Erin DeMerell, that, for me, represent the inside of Diana’s brain–all a tangle of loose connections, yet beautifully lit.

After seven weeks of medication and psychotherapy, Diana sings in a melodic voice that trebles to show her anguish and vulnerability, “I don’t feel like myself, I don’t feel anything.” Doctor replies, “Patient, stable.” We experience the frustration of the only choices being extremes with no middle ground. On one side is an end to the pain. On the other is loss of all sensation, including delight and joy that Diana sings about in the first act song, “I Miss the Mountains.”

As Diana battles to get better, her depression becomes more thug-like and cocky. With glee and arrogance, it defiantly sings, “I’m alive, I’m so alive!” not caring who it hurts or what is in its path as it bullies its way through lives, wrecking as it goes. It tells her there’s a world where she can go where there’s no pain, “a place where we can be.” Next to Normal touches deep places.

In Next to Normal we see what depression does to those who grapple with it. We also find ourselves searching for a way to make it stop, that anything would be better than living like this. As Natalie tells her mom, she doesn’t want “a life that’s normal, that’s just too far away.” She says she’d be happy with next to normal.

With Angela Colombo contributing

Week of 7/15/2024

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