Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
When you think of musicals, one tends to think of lighter fare. There’s nothing light about the musical “Next to Normal” (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey). This modern-day “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” unflinchingly delves into the world of mental illness. The most compelling thing about this musical is its refusal to over-simplify. The show doesn’t shy away from intricacy, demonstrating how mental illness is bigger than the individual. It’s also a harsh reminder that solving for mental illness isn’t just swallowing a pill. That’s easy to forget when drug company commercials portray and cure depression in the span of 30 seconds.
“Next to Normal” centers on Diana Goodman (Meg Pryor), a wife and mother who’s battled mental illness for nearly two decades. Her family has both borne witness to and been collateral damage in her struggles. The play makes you feel the weight of their constant renegotiation. In the opening song, “Just Another Day,” her husband, Dan (Ricardo Vila-Roger) sings about how he has to “hold the house together.” He seems clueless that his wife has just humored him with sex, so there’s an almost laughable quality to this utterance. In that moment, he’s easily dismissible as a dude with an overinflated perception of his centrality in the household mechanics. In fact, it’s foreshadowing how the caretaker shoulders the household burdens. Vila-Roger appropriately exudes both fatigue and hope as well as an always-on vigilance that comes with constantly gauging a mentally ill partner. Director Niffer Clarke has Vila-Roger poignantly straddle the desire to protect his wife while also helping her get the care she needs without always knowing the right path.
Treatment often seems like a spinning roulette wheel. The treatment cycle ironically mirrors Diana’s own bipolar manic-depressive episodes. There’s a renewed hope with each new treatment plan that cascades into despair as it fails. This is most tellingly captured in “Who’s Crazy”/”My Psychopharmacologist and I” as Dr. Fine (Pedar Garred) sings about various pill combinations and their attending requirements and restrictions. The ensemble chimes in with “just a few of my favorite pills,” a takeoff on the song “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” One musical borrows from another.
Garred lacks the vocal punch of the other actors and is often drowned out by the music. This is particularly noticeable with he’s paired with Pryor who is a vocal powerhouse, but sometimes sings too loudly, even when she’s not manic. Her near-shouting at times can cause her words to lose emotional resonance. Achieving consistency around vocal projection levels ends up being a miss from Clarke. Clarke does do a stellar job of utilizing the stage. During this number, Dr. Fine’s pill catalog becomes dizzyingly overwhelming, as intended. Clarke visually reinforces that by having Pryor spin in circles across the stage on a wheeled stool.
The Goodman’s children, Natalie (Isabel Descutner) and Gabe (John A. Habib), are both adequate in their roles without being noteworthy. Descutner doesn’t feel totally authentic as Natalie, but her concerns about her mother’s behavior negatively influencing her burgeoning high school romance are genuine. It’s a reminder we’re all products of nature and nurture. Mental illness lacks contained boundaries and spills out, staining those beyond it in ways we can’t easily see.
Laura Valenti’s scenic design paired with TJ Hays’ lighting design creates a memorably remarkable stage. The set is clearly a house. However, Valenti thoughtfully chooses a color palette of sterile white and unfeeling gray that Hays outlines with harsh fluorescents to heighten the institutional feel. The uncompromising lighting makes the specter of mental illness visual and omnipresent. The house is a home, but the institutional lighting beautifully highlights the ways in which mental illness is not confined to a hospital or doctor’s office.
“Next to Normal” is an emotional journey and sometimes hard to watch as it brings light to those who suffer from mental illness. The production’s program includes a list of national and local resources for mental health, connecting the artistic to the real world. “Next to Normal” is a heart wrenching reminder that people are fighting all kinds of battles we can’t always see. It inspires empathy for our fellow humans. We can all be kinder.
The University of Pittsburgh’s production of “Next to Normal” plays through October 13th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre, 4200 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.