Loving the Mentally Ill in the Wayward Artist’s Next to Normal

Picking up the pieces of you. Photo by Jordan Kubat

There are a lot of questions regarding mental illness: Who is affected? Why are they affected? When, where and how to seek professional help?

But there’s another question not asked nearly as often, but that affects far more people than the oft-cited stat of the one in five Americans who will experience a severe mental illness in any given year: How do those who genuinely care for and love them stop blaming the sick person for how the mental illness makes them feel?

It’s an uncomfortable question, one that reeks of selfishness; anyone who dares raise it probably feels like an ass and needs some professional help themselves, right?

Maybe. But it’s also one of the things that elevates the 2008 musical Next to Normal from just another story of the terrible nature of mental illness to one about how that illness, like drug addiction, affects the people around them, their families, friends and significant others who so often feel completely insignificant around them.

The central character in this rock-tinged musical, which earned creators Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is Diana, the domestic hub of her apparently normal nuclear family. But while the play revolves around Diana’s mental illness, which appears to be some form of bipolar accented by psychotic touches, it’s as much about how the characters in her orbit are affected, as well as the confusion, frustration and even anger they feel toward her: her kind and compassionate husband, Dan; her overachieving, stressed-out high-school-aged daughter, Natalie; and her son, Gabe, a typical-enough seeming teen who is clearly the shining star in Diana’s constellation.

Except there’s one little problem with Diana’s family dynamic: One of those characters doesn’t actually exist. It is a manifestation, if not a trigger, for her severe mental illness, one that makes her somewhat-amusing-at-times symptoms (making sandwiches on the kitchen floor; bursts of productive mania that yield home improvements that even a tweaker would find impressive) turn deadly serious, such as when she stops her smorgasbord of prescription drugs.

The intimate setting of the Grand Central Art Center theater both helps and hinders the telling of this engrossing, achingly heartfelt and surprisingly very funny story. The characters are always within touching distance of the audience, which makes things very immediate. But as in any musical, the use of recorded music reinforces the inherent artifice of the genre. It’s a constant reminder of the already highly unusual experience of seeing people spontaneously burst into song (and wouldn’t it be nice if that were the main manifestation of all mental illnesses?). Bigger spaces make it easier for the audience to detach from that artifice, yet strangely invest more into it. But when you are so close to the characters you can hear them breathe, that useful, even necessary, sense of detachment is harder to obtain.

Director Craig Tyrl of this Wayward Artist production does what he can with the space, creating a fluid and visually appealing show that uses Kristin Campbell’s videos to great effect: the rapidfire imagery of violent and distorted images juxtaposed with serene shots of clouds and nature are visual reminders of the turbulence punctuated by moments of clarity going on inside Diana’s head.

The ensemble is uniformly strong, with Wyn Moreno’s Dan and Erica Schaeffer’s Natalie contributing particularly passionate and fully formed portrayals. Then again, they are the only characters not enveloped in delusion. As Diana, Rachel Oliveros Catalano is quite effective when she is acting, in terms of being active, but her physicality—crossing of arms, wringing of hands—makes her feel closed off most of the time, as if she’s aware she’s different. Hell yes, she’s different; she is seriously mentally ill. But one of the ironies of mental illness is that the person suffering from it is often the last one who knows it or, perhaps, even cares about it.

Mentally ill people are particularly adept at living in the moment. The problem is, the people who most care about them are also in that moment, but it’s not theirs. And regardless of the care, concern and genuine love they feel for that person, they can also feel trapped in that moment and yearn to get out of it. And they feel like shit because of it.

Living with mental illness is no joke, whether it’s inhabiting the faulty wiring in your brain or some hole in your soul, or it’s in a person you love. Next to Normal gets that. And even though the trace of hope that lingers at this play’s end feels nice, the reality of such situations is even crazier than people suddenly bursting into song—and yes, even more agonizing than many musicals (but not this one!) are to endure. But at least this one beautifully—and sadly—captures some aspect of that reality.

Next to Normal at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana; www.thewaywardartist.org. Thurs.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m. (April 20 matinee sold out); Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 28. $15-$25.

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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