I don’t need to tell you how good of a musical Next to Normal is — it won a Pulitzer; we all know how good it is. Nor will it be a surprise to hear that Tony-winning director David Cromer has created a masterful evening of small and terrifyingly intimate moments with a deft, spare, and nuanced hand. Instead, I’d like to focus on why this show had me weeping uncontrollably for most of its second act, and how I think it got there.
For those unfamiliar, Next to Normal is the story of the suburban, middle-class, normal-seeming Goodman family. Our central character, Diana (Keely Vasquez), struggles to live her adult life while dealing with severe and often crippling bipolar disorder. Her husband Dan (David Schlumpf) and teenage kids Natalie and Gabe (Kyrie Courter and Liam Oh), meanwhile, must deal with the side effects of Diana’s dysfunction.
It’s a simple premise, and quite a politically charged one at that. Next to Normal has been lauded as a much-needed and brutally honest exploration of mental illness — but it has also been criticized as a harmful exaggeration that stereotypes what mentally ill people go through. Both of these things are true, to some extent. The best way to construct a respectful production that hews towards the former interpretation, then, is to keep things understated and grounded, rather than over-the-top or theatrical. And in this regard, David Cromer has succeeded in spades. Restraint is the name of the game here, in every aspect both technical and artistic, and it gives this production incredible power.
Set designer Regina Garcia, for instance, has created a space in the suburban home of the Goodmans that is simple, graceful, and effective in letting us know exactly the type of people we’re watching. There is a brief mention in the text that Dan and Diana are both architects and designed their current house, and while it is mostly unimportant to the plot, Garcia has weaved it into their surroundings. The space is very comforting and new-age in a very specific way — lots of smooth wood, open spaces, and tall windows; something that two married architects building a house together might have designed. But furthermore, it is also a subtle comment on one of the show’s themes; that of feeling trapped inside yourself, inside the edifice of your own life and the decisions you’ve made.
This storytelling is taken a step further when the set interacts with the lighting design (Keith Parham). Because the light from stage left mostly comes in large squares and very particular colors, it is easy to deduce that, although we cannot see it, the Goodman home has one very large window just offstage that goes all the way up one side of the house. This is brilliant for several reasons: it matches well with the new-age look of the rest of the house, and it gives the set a feeling of constant scrutiny from the outside world. But it also gives Parham carte blanche to create a grounded and realized world through light — whether it be simulating different times of day with different amounts of sunlight streaming in, or creating nighttime moments of darkness or isolation using the street lamps outside, or else the pale grim glow of moonlight. And even inside the house, light always comes from distinct sources, casting dynamic shadows on key set pieces, and is mostly the realistic gold-yellow of household lamps. It is only during dream sequences that surreal moods of color begin to creep in.
This is a design team who understands that the bigger the topic you’re going for, the smaller the execution; the grander the emotion, the simpler the gesture. And Cromer has clearly extended this ethos to the actors as well. I’m a big fan of the adage that watching an actor try not to cry is always more interesting than watching an actor cry. It allows the audience to intuit their own emotional reaction, rather than asking for a specific one. Each performance upholds this principle beautifully, in different and dynamic ways.
For instance, the character of Natalie, with all her pent-up anger and open distrust of people, could very easily be (and often is) played as a snarky teenage stereotype. But Kyrie Courter plays her as a very stoic and still kind of person, whose struggle comes from trying to hold her stable facade together. It is a type of personality that I recognize from many of my high-achieving, AP-class-taking acquaintances from high school, and it is refreshing to see onstage.
David Schlumpf takes quite a different tack with the character of Dan — rather than trying and failing to be composed, his Dan tries and fails to be a perfect, loving spouse. There is this popular image, I think, of how a supportive spouse is supposed to react to adversity when it happens in a marriage. Constant and even-keeled emotional support is an impossible standard to hold oneself to, as Dan learns to his detriment. It’s fascinating to watch his slow yet composed descent throughout the show, as he becomes so focused on his wife’s mental health that he neglects his own.
Liam Oh churns out my favorite performance of the evening with the extremely difficult character of Gabe. For various spoiler-y reasons I won’t get into, Gabe needs to swivel between being an impossibly cute teenage dreamboat, and an ominous personification of the dark side of mental illness. Those sweet, enticing, and dangerous thoughts that your depression or anxiety whisper to you in your darkest moments. It’s a tough dance for any actor, and if done ineptly it can tip the needle of the show from an examination of mental illness, to a romanticization. Oh resolves this tension by playing Gabe as very easygoing and chill in his charming moments — so that when he becomes darker and slower, it’s not a huge change. He’s still the dreamboat teenager, which makes his dangerous advice easier to swallow. In addition, Cromer seems to take perverse joy in placing this character in unusual places on the set, giving him many unsettling moments that are hilarious and haunting in turn.
Keely Vasquez as Diana, however, is the character who benefits the most from this production’s less-is-more philosophy. Playing this character is dicey even at a base level — as written, she is a dangling Damocles sword of representation, a microcosm of everything wrong and right with the way we portray mental illness in media. She spends the entire show taking irrational actions that most people will have trouble relating to — but Vasquez imbues Diana with a great deal of stillness, reflection, and contemplation. Rather than take center stage and snap her gaze to the middle distance when her solos begin, she sings while sitting on the stairs in her house, or while rolling around in an office chair, or paging through old photos of her family. There is always action, but it’s very quiet action that makes you, the audience, feel as though you are intruding on an intimate moment. And as a result, the leaps in logic that drive Diana to do nonsensical or horrible things don’t seem out of nowhere, because we are drawn into her emotional journey in a very subtle way.
It is worth noting that the singing is all-around excellent. Music director Andra Velis Simon has put together an ensemble whose voices are beautiful together, but who also sound conversational and real, with very little belting. It is easy to believe that these are characters telling their story, rather than actors exercising singing techniques or performing.
Gabriel Ruiz is in turns hilarious and comforting as the string of doctors who must diagnose and guide Diana on her journey. And Alex Levy is pitch perfect as Natalie’s bumbling stoner boyfriend Henry, with his long hair and easy charm. Henry’s subplot in the second act of the script (which mostly involves him continuing to romantically pursue Natalie ever after she has explicitly said no multiple times) is a hard arc to make compassionate, but Levy sells it with panache.
Now, all this top-notch artistry and effort was to be expected from Writers; what I did not expect was how deeply I would be moved. As I said, I cried through almost the entire second act, and I think it’s because Next To Normal — and this production in particular, with its quiet, unassuming tone — is very good at making you feel, in a deep-down and guttural way, the utter hopelessness that mental illness can sometimes bring, as well as the defiant, hard-won optimism you get once you chisel through that hopelessness.
I don’t like to publicly pontificate about my own experiences with mental illness that much, as I have a relatively mild strain of anxiety that is not nearly as severe as that of many people I know. But the thing is, I can still relate to Diana. I can relate to the feeling of being at your lowest point and going to see a therapist for the first time, and looking at the long haul ahead of you, the unclimbable mountain of work you’re going to have to do to become an even slightly functional person. I can relate to finally, finally getting to that semi-functional summit, only to discover that your work isn’t done, that self-improvement lasts a lifetime, and how exhausting that realization is. I can relate to feeling trapped inside my own thoughts, of wanting an escape from my inescapable, non-navigable self. And I can relate to eventually coming to grips with the work of self-maintenance, of becoming more comfortable with making tough decisions, of seeing the light ahead.
Next to Normal has often been lampooned for portraying mentally ill people as over the top and crazy, and that’s kind of true. Diana’s symptoms are extreme; plenty of people with bipolar disorder never go as far, or suffer so extremely, as she does. And the show does not present us with an alternate portrayal that is more average.
But while I understand that criticism, I think Diana’s story works for one important reason: this exaggeration is a deliberate choice in the text. I don’t believe that writers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey believe that all mentally ill people are like this; there are multiple occasions in the dialogue where Diana’s doctor points out that these particular symptoms, though not unheard of, are exceedingly rare. Diana’s mental illness is so severe because it’s a worst-case scenario, and so it becomes a sort of exaggerated safe space where the audience can examine their worst and darkest ideas.
Next To Normal at Writers Theatre feels like a secret you want to keep to yourself. It never tries to grab your attention; often this production makes you feel like you should look away. But you can’t, the same way you couldn’t turn your back on a crying friend. This Next to Normal is a microscope that zooms right into the most devastating questions of your life, your relationships, and yourself. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop marveling at the way it portrays these big, almost overwhelming ideas with the simplest of gestures.
Next to Normal runs at Writers Theatre through June 23rd (extended).
BIAS ALERT: Andra Velis Simon is a mentor and friend.
Natalie Goodman: Kyrie Courter
Henry: Alex Levy
Gabe: Liam Oh
Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine: Gabriel Ruiz
Dan Goodman: David Schlumpf
Diana Goodman: Keely Vasquez
u/s Diana Goodman: Brianna Borger
u/s Natalie Goodman: Ariana Burks
u/s Dan, Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine: Evan Tyrone Martin
u/s Gabe, Henry: Kieran McCabe
Director: David Cromer
Stage Manager: Rebecca Pechter
Scenic Designer: Regina Garcia
Costume Designer: Rachel Anne Healy
Lighting Designer: Keith Parham
Co-Sound Designers: Christopher M. LaPorte and Ray Nardelli
Properties Master: Rachel Watson
Choreographer: Eamon Foley
Dramaturg: Bobby Kennedy
Assistant Dramaturg: Andrew Agress
Assistant Director: Harmony France
Assistant Stage Manager: Abigail Medrano
Stage Management Intern: Sophia Barron
Deck Crew: Joe Creen, Kaitlyn Salemi
Mic Tech: Sydney Alexander
Wardrobe Run Crew: Beckie Price, Janelle Manno
Light Board Operator: Megan Wines
Light Board Programmer: Billy Murphy
Scenic Construction: Means of Production
Carpenters: Nikolas Mikkelson, Adam Ziemkiewicz
Costume Shopper: Jessica Barker
Stitchers: Melissa Wilson, Janelle Manno
Wig and Hair Design: Penny Lane Studios
Photography: Michael Brosilow