Theatre review: Next to Normal

by **

Dear Dad

Life begins normal enough, in Next to Normal. A mother chastises her son for another late night out, then covers it from his father. Her husband appears anxious but protective and their daughter is decidedly studious. However, it is far from being so.

Reviews on this theatrical work by writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt  — it opened on Broadway in 2009 and ran until January this year — were unanimous in praise of its honesty and audacity. It is no surprise then that Next to Normal is the proud winner of three Tony Awards as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama — unexpected is the lingering impressions that the emotional punches leave behind.

In a brisk outline, Next to Normal resembles another dysfunctional-family story that centres around mental illness and its impact on the patient and her family. But Yorkey and Kitt defy conventions and push boundaries to play pick-and-mix with a range of genres. The allusions include a theatrical drama, musical and opera — decorated in classics, rock and ballads. In the end, the talented duo will present an ambitious and heart-rending drama (nearly) entirely in song.

Here, at the Melbourne Theatre Company, Next to Normal is directed with confidence and style by Dean Bryant. His musical director, Mathew Frank, orchestrates the six-piece music band. Without the benefit of viewing the original staging, this production lives well up to expectations. For it soars from a sterling performance by an excellent cast — their enunciation delivers the story with limpid clarity — a fascinating set design, effectual lighting and pleasing choreography.

Kate Kendall’s Diana is exceptional as the suburban mother who is diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Through generous expression and graceful poise, she at once brings pathos and dignity to the central role.

Matthew Hetherington’s Dan is immensely moving as the devoted husband who has restrained his own psychological meltdown to cushion his wife from her manic swings. None more so than on his wife’s impending departure from home. His painful silence and emotional veracity make it hard to keep from getting appropriately teary.

Christy Sullivan’s Natalie is convincing as the daughter who lives in the shadow of her brother, Gabe. While Gareth Keegan’s Gabe selfishly consumes their mother’s mind, Natalie turns to her studies to fill the void and seeks solace first in music, then in boyfriend Henry (Benjamin Hoetjes), and finally in drugs. All three debutantes show huge promise and enormous flair.

Far from being minor roles, Dr Fine and Dr Madden hold the production together. And here Bert LaBonte does not put a foot wrong.

Richard Roberts’ skilful set — diaphanous screens that close to delineate the frame of a double-storey house but slide in and out for glimpses into the lounge, the bedroom, school, doctors’ office, etc. — is a metaphor for Diana’s transient nebulous mind. Matt Scott’s lighting appropriates atmospherics and moods as they must be felt in mania and Andrew Hallsworth’s sleek choreography makes for an ever-evolving spectacle. One difficulty, albeit a favourable one, is trying to sponge up all that the mise en scene has to offer — challenges and pleasures, emotional or sensual.

Arguably, the most memorable scene comes in the breathtaking syncronicity with which all the pieces come together to allow for sentiments and lyrics to be seamlessly shared at the same time between Diana and Natalie — like dramas unfolding in parallel universes.

The artistic guessing-game is sustained in a good part of the first act, in which Yorkey’s writing skirts tantalisingly around the underlying cause of Diana’s illness, as well as the second, when decisions around and denouement of the Electro-Convulsive Therapy remain unpredictable till the end.

Next to Normal, at 2 hours and 40 minutes, could do with a tad of pruning (especially in the second act) and crisp economy. Even as Diana’s mental affliction drives the plot, a nagging thought — that wrestles bipolar disorder with medicalisation of grief — refuses to be driven away.

Still, this is a play about how mental deficit — illness or not — affects victims and all those around them, as they dare strive for no more than a life Next to Normal. Unforgettable.