The beginning of “Next to Normal” sheds light on the stage in the middle of the night. Diana Goodman, a mother, crosses paths with each member of her family: her son, who returns home far past curfew; her daughter, Natalie, who obsesses over her homework late into the night; and her husband, Dan, who calls her back to bed. The scene presents an image of a suburban family that feels typical: a rebellious child, an overachieving child, a boring marriage. But the slightly edgy rock music in “Just Another Day” sets an anxious, uncertain undertone to the scene in which Diana describes her son as “a shit,” her husband as “boring” and her daughter as “a freak,” all the while reminding the audience that “still I help them love each other.” Not until the morning does the audience feel the ambiance of anxiety surface into something tangibly wrong. The early morning bustle abruptly halts when Diana begins to make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches frantically on the floor, unaware of her surroundings. The scene ends as Dan and Natalie take their mother to the doctor, opening a wound that continues to bleed throughout the show: the problem of Diana Goodman’s mental illness.
“Next to Normal,” which opened on Broadway in April 2009 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010, tells the story of a woman’s challenges with bipolar disorder and how her illness affects her family, supplemented with rock music that brings visceral feeling to the suffering expressed throughout the play. Declan Kunkel ’19 and Abbey Burgess ’19 from the Yale Drama Coalition produced and directed the play, respectively. Kunkel argued that the most challenging aspect of bringing the play to life at Yale was its sensitive source material. He explained that any audience of “Next to Normal” must be appreciative of mental illness in order to understand and have an accessible conversation with the piece. Burgess said that the play was difficult to execute musically, calling the score a “musical monster” — Kunkel himself noted that while often music in musicals propels the story, in “Next to Normal” the rock music “helps you feel the raw power of the sensation of living with mental illness.” For this production, the Disabilities Office at Yale offered financial assistance as well as guidance on representing such sensitive subject matter accurately and carefully. Both Kunkel and Burgess expressed their excitement about presenting such an artistic depiction of mental illness, as well as breaking down social stigmas of representing such material, to the Yale community.
“Next to Normal” showcases two relationship narratives simultaneously: Dan and Diana’s, as well as that of their daughter, Natalie, and her boyfriend, Henry. I was struck by the ways in which the show merges these stories and tells them at the same time. Just after Dan urges Diana to visit her psychopharmacologist, which brings on the song “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I,” Henry encourages Natalie to smoke marijuana with him. As Diana and Dan spy on Henry kissing Natalie for the first time, they experience a flashback together to when Diana told Dan she was pregnant and Dan told her he wanted to keep their baby: “This is crazy. … Maybe it is.”
I was most struck by how the play and its actors represented Diana and Dan’s late son. The audience learns that his character is in fact a hallucination when Henry comes over for dinner to meet Natalie’s parents, and Diana brings in a birthday cake to celebrate his birthday. Natalie shouts: “This is fucked! Fuck this!” and she and Henry leave — representative of the ways in which Natalie’s late brother upstaged her throughout her childhood. The son, who the audience later learns is named Gabriel, often enters musical numbers harmonizing with his mother or father. In his mother’s moments of trauma, he enters the stage singing, “I’m alive! I’m alive!” along with jarring rock music. Just before Diana goes to the hospital to treat her self-inflicted razor wounds, obtained while playing with her son’s playthings, Diana and Gabriel dance with each other in a nearly romantic moment. Consistently throughout the play, Gabriel haunts, illuminates and wreaks havoc on his mother and father’s lives, offering his voice to harmonize with those who mourn his loss when they think of him.
I was also struck by the ways in which the play and its actors represented Dan’s heroism and his vulnerabilities. The solo he sings while cleaning up his wife’s blood is one of the most heartbreaking scenes: He expresses his confusion about her illness, his fear of living without her, his determination to make her better. He does everything he can to keep her from remembering her son’s death after electric shock therapy cleared her memory. And he is heartbroken when she ultimately leaves him, but he gives her the freedom to come back to him when she feels ready.
To see an educational, resonant and heartbreaking rock musical about mental illness and its effects on the family psyche, buy tickets to the Yale Dramatic Coalition’s student-run production of “Next to Normal,” playing at the Off-Broadway Theater on Jan. 26 and 27 at 8 p.m. and on Jan. 27 at 2 p.m. Just before you leave, all six tumultuous and complicated characters will sing “There will be light!” and you will believe them.
Annie Nields | firstname.lastname@example.org .