Review: “Next to Normal”

David Schlumpf and Keely Vasquez in “Next to Normal.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre, Nichols Theatre,
325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through June 30
Tickets: $35-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

Director David Cromer really knows how to immerse an audience in the world of a play, as anyone who saw his productions of “Picnic” or “A Streetcar Named Desire” for Writers Theatre knows. He does it again with “Next to Normal,” Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey’s (book and lyrics) decade-old Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical about a woman with bipolar disorder and how it affects her family.

Cromer’s is the most compelling of the three versions of this show I’ve seen. The intimacy of the theater and the way he uses every inch help, but equally important are the vulnerability and emotional rawness of the characters. He lets us get inside all their heads, or almost all, as they struggle to deal with grief, depression, drug abuse, and death.

For Diana Goodman, played with unvarnished truthfulness by Keely Vasquez, the spiral is mostly downward. What starts in their suburban home as “Just Another Day” for her, teenage daughter Natalie (Kyrie Courter), and son Gabe (Liam Oh), who isn’t named initially, quickly morphs into a manic episode with Diana making sandwiches all over the floor, and long-suffering husband Dan (David Schlumpf) taking her to see Dr. Fine (Gabriel Ruiz). Over the course of several visits, he adjusts her medications until she complains that she can’t feel anything, and he declares her “stable.” These sessions are encapsulated in “Who’s Crazy” / “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” one of the evening’s few funny numbers.

After lamenting her loss of life’s highs and lows in “I Miss the Mountains,” one of the most beautiful songs, Diana goes on to try drug-free talk therapy and even hypnosis with Dr. Madden (Ruiz again). But Gabe keeps competing for her soul, declaring “I’m Alive” in his forceful anthem and luring her to attempt suicide (with Oedipal overtones) in “I Dreamed a Dance” and “There’s a World.”

We soon learn that Gabe is the ghost of Diana’s son who died 16 years earlier. But instead of appearing as the infant he was then, he’s been growing up with her all along, so he’s now 17. His pull has become so strong that Dr. Madden recommends the extreme measure of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), telling Dan it’s the normal treatment for drug-resistant patients who are suicidal. Diana reacts angrily, but Dan, desperate to keep his family from dissolving, convinces her it’s the only thing to do.

Meanwhile Natalie, a talented musician and disciplined student who has been neglected by her parents, heads down a parallel path prompted by her mother’s decline and, inadvertently, by Henry (Alex Levy), a stoner who urges her to lighten up, then falls in love with her. Natalie blows a big piano recital, experiments with Diana’s drugs, goes wild at clubs, generally misbehaves, and keeps trying to reject Alex, who refuses to give up on her and essentially takes on the same role as Dan does with Diana.

The second act focuses on the aftermath of Diana’s ECT, and it’s not what Dan had hoped.  Dr. Madden’s optimism notwithstanding, Diana’s severe memory loss causes her no end of distress as she tries to fill in the blanks, and Dan tries to hold on to shreds of their marriage and shared past. The best result seems to be a rapprochement between Diana and Natalie as they sing about a life that “(Maybe) Next to Normal.” And Natalie finally accepts that Alex is sticking by her, while Dan is left to confront his own grief, despite a final ray of hope in the evocation of “Light.”

It’s tempting to regard “Next to Normal” as an indictment of the way mental illness is treated, but Cromer and the outstanding actors, who make the characters eminently human, flaws and all, help us realize that the situation is more complicated than that. While Levy’s Henry is the sweetest in his steadfastness, I found myself having a lot of sympathy for Schlumpf’s Dan who makes many mistakes but really wants to do the right thing, I think.

Still, I’d assign some blame to the excesses of the system and a lot to something that’s only mentioned in passing. Diana says that four months after baby Gabe died, a doctor told her she had grieved long enough. The enormity of that misjudgment will stay with me forever.

Musically, the production is in top form with the small offstage orchestra under music director/pianist/conductor Andra Velis Simon. All the actors have good voices, and Oh’s Gabe stands out.

Regina Garcia’s scenic design with a prominent staircase and several playing areas suggests a suburban home nicely, and Keith Parham’s lighting design includes some spectacular effects, such as the evocation of electroconvulsive therapy enhanced by Christopher M. LaPorte and Ray Nardelli’s sound design. Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes are on the mark, too.

If you’re looking for a musical that will make you happy and hopeful for the future, “Next to Normal” is not for you. But if you’re up for one that tackles real-world problems in a convincing way, check it out.