Mental health is a tricky subject to approach in storytelling. Do you try to solve the depression of a character, and risk pulling all the weight out from under your story’s credibility? Do you try to define the core of a character’s mental illness, and risk simplifying the psychological and biological complexities of a common real world problem? Do you avoid diving into the issue out of fear, reducing an otherwise compelling spider web of head and heart to the dusty cobwebs of an unswept stage?
Next to Normal is impressive in that it hits precisely zero of these potholes. No one who sits through even the opening number in this musical could accuse writer Brian Yorkey of pulling his punches. Nor could an audience member accuse The Theatre Factory of not diving 100% headfirst into Yorkey’s subversive, manic portrayal of a family living in the shadow of mental illness.
Chelsea Bartel is Diana, a woman slowly being crushed under the weight of her own ‘50s housewife persona. She is a mother and a wife – but is she anything else? Her husband, Dan (Jason Swauger), is more acutely aware than anyone of the chasm between what Diana is and who she is, but has settled into a pattern of stoking the dimming fire that is his family by readjusting the rose tint on everyone’s glasses.
One thing we can discern about Diana right away is her inability to be present for Natalie (Layne Bailey), her unsettling worry the presence of her son, Gabe (Anthony Masetto), and that her relationship with antidepressants is unhealthy.
To say more would be to spoil what is by all accounts a genuinely thrilling, twisty rock musical that commits just as hard to its absurdist portrayal of familial alienation as it does to the very real inner turmoil it’s dedicated to exploring. Why tiptoe through a minefield of potential insensitivity when you can spring through it with a blinking neon sign that reads “HEY GUYS, WE’RE GONNA TALK ABOUT THIS.”
The Theatre Factory has cast the show quite well. Besides nailing the vocals and choreography on a technical level, there’s an undeniably natural quality to the performances here that breathe so much life onto the stage. There is a clear focus on the vulnerable human being beneath the (at times) maximalist cast of characters.
Henry, for instance, could most easily be reduced to the stereotype of stoner high school kid, but as played by Josh Reardon, we can always tell he’s young, romantic, and trying to figure things out. Even Josh List’s Dr. Madden, Diana’s psychologist, has an earnest drive to explore Diana’s intellect and motivations, and is pressing and genuine in moments. He’s not just the psychologist; he is a person who is a psychologist.
Bailey’s Natalie similarly caught me off guard at how complete a performance she gives. There is a certain classic quality to her character’s teen angst, but Bailey’s ability to wear both ambivalence and vulnerability in equal amounts brought a necessary immediacy to the sometimes unpredictable character.
In contrast, Jason Swauger’s Dan is a character whose motivations are at all points entirely clear; he is simple, caring, and easily likable. Primarily, he is a caretaker with sometimes selfish reasons for doing so. As such, Swauger’s greatest moments are when he’s holding onto Diana with one tenuous thread, trying to fix with words a problem barely diagnosable.
The play’s biggest presences are Diana and Gabe. Massetto’s Gabe is an intense, leering presence here. He rolls across the stage as if he were a bowling ball and his cast mates the pins. I say this not only because I like making really bad similes, but also because the performance is too visual not to be described in visual terms. Massetto uses the set almost like a jungle gym, or perhaps…a stripper pole? Gabe often proves to be the most intense figure in the play, so it’s appropriate that, unlike the rest of the cast, there’s no focus on subtlety here.
The cast is at its strongest when their motivations run totally parallel to one another. Many of the play’s best moments are scenes in which one character, desperate for normalcy and/or validation, loses their minds at Diana through a charging rock chorus, while Diana is performing a whole other song back at them, or maybe past them.
Chelsea Bartel is an excellent Diana, particularly during the show’s first act, when the character is pure energy confined in one small broken space. She has a laser focus on both the comedy and tragedy of the character, and emotes trauma and self-deprecation in equal measure. She is hilarious, and knowing, and sad, and desperate to escape herself. She is a sunny, upbeat voice shouting horrible things. In the play’s wildest moments, Bartel’s performance is so on point it feels like she herself invented the character, but in the play’s quietest, most intimate conversations, I felt I lost the character behind this satirical affectation.
There is a fairly sizable technical issue that detracted from the show, namely the actor’s mics cutting out or creating noticeable digital noise. I’m usually the last person to turn up my nose at a hiccup like this, but the issue persisted for much of the play and kneecapped a few moments that were otherwise in perfect rhythm.
Anyone suffering from mental illness, or anyone who cares deeply about someone who does, knows how broken conversations on the topic can be, how little tools we have with which to work through that invisible trauma. More than anything, this play is a colorful and dynamic musical that absolutely simplifies conversation around the issue by compounding its effects rather than simplifying them. Next to Normal is the exact kind of engaging, brazenly huge experience necessary to do its subject matter justice.
Special thanks to the Theatre Factory for complimentary press tickets. Next to Normal runs weekends through October 2, for tickets and more information click here.