Trying to stay afloat in ‘Next to Normal’

Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Kerry A. Dowling as a mother battling bipolar disorder in “Next to Normal.’’

“Next to Normal’’ makes a demand on audiences that few musicals dare to make: It asks you to look at an open wound for two-plus hours.

By the end of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s powerfully moving production, you’re glad you accepted the challenge.

No clinical detachment is possible for the family at the center of “Next to Normal,’’ which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Their wound is a psychological one, and it is raw, deep, painful, and all-pervasive. Diana, the mother, played with compelling force by Kerry A. Dowling, is battling bipolar disorder - complete with depression, delusions, and suicidal tendencies - as well as a personal loss with which she has never come to grips, one whose effects ripple throughout her household.


Exactly how precariously Diana is teetering on the brink is made clear in the opening number, “Just Another Day.’’ At first, Diana’s early-morning banter with her husband, Dan (Christopher Chew), daughter, Natalie (Sarah Drake), and son, Gabe (Michael Tacconi), while a bit off-kilter, seems not all that atypical. Then she busies herself with a humdrum domestic routine - making sandwiches - while signaling, in song, the oncoming collapse of her equilibrium: “I will hold it all together/ I will hide the mess away/ And I’ll survive/ Another day.’’

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Soon her actions take a bizarre turn: She obsessively keeps making sandwich after sandwich, and soon starts lining up pieces of bread next to one another on the floor, as Dan and Natalie look on, aghast.

From that point on, the dual drama of “Next to Normal’’ - written by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and directed at SpeakEasy by the company’s producing artistic director, Paul Daigneault - revolves around Diana’s struggle to stay sane and her family’s struggle to stay together.

Mental illness affects the lives of 60 million Americans, including one in four adults and one in 10 children, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Yet when theater addresses this pervasive area of human experience, it tends to do so at the outer extremes (and seldom in musical form): Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’’ Sarah Kane’s “4:48 Psychosis,’’ Peter Shaffer’s “Equus.’’

“Next to Normal’’ abounds in wrenching moments, but they are rooted in everyday experience, mirroring the confusion, fear, and emotional exhaustion of millions of families. There are no easy answers to mental illness, and “Next to Normal,’’ unflinchingly honest, often grim, yet hopeful, doesn’t suggest there are. It also generally refrains from resorting to glibness or cheap shock effects.


In “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I,’’ Diana’s 16-year history of trying medication after medication, and coping with the attendant side effects, is skillfully evoked in a scene with her doctor, played by Chris Caron. “I don’t feel like myself,’’ she says. “I mean, I don’t feel anything.’’ With a satisfied air, the doctor scribbles on his pad and says: “Patient stable.’’

Seághan McKay’s projections, with line after line of dry psychological jargon projected on the panels of Eric Levenson’s versatile set, likewise emphasize academic remoteness from the lived experience of mental illness. From beginning to end, Daigneault shows an equally sure hand with the musical’s hallucinatory, out-of-control sequences and its quietly devastating interludes. Lighting designer Jeff Adelberg is adept at underscoring the piece’s shifting moods.

The songwriting team of Kitt and Yorkey has pulled off a difficult feat, crafting three dozen tunes whose incisive lyrics illuminate the characters’ states of mind, inner anxieties, and wobbly, half-articulated dreams of stability, while quickly and efficiently propelling the story along. A lot gets said in song. “I Am the One,’’ sung by Diana, Dan, and Gabe, illustrates the competing forces pulling at Diana, while “Superboy and the Invisible Girl’’ reveals the extent to which Natalie is a casualty of her mother’s illness.

Drake delivers a searing, all-out performance as Natalie, who is driven to overachieve to compensate for the chaos on the homefront, and is fearful about pursuing a romantic relationship. Every ounce of adolescent hurt is there to see in Drake’s face and her self-protective body language, and to hear in songs like these: “Take a look at the Invisible Girl/ Here she is, clear as the day/ Please look closely and find her before/ She fades away.’’ (A senior at the Boston Conservatory, Drake is one versatile actress; she played Kitty, the spacey blonde chorus girl in SpeakEasy’s “The Drowsy Chaperone’’ last year.)

Tacconi’s Gabe is suitably mysterious: impish and accusatory by turns. Michael Levesque lends strong support as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend. Chew is excellent as Dan. He brings poignancy to his portrait of a loving husband battling his wife’s illness and his own feelings of helplessness as she recedes from him, bit by bit. But what carries “Next to Normal’’ is Dowling’s performance as Diana, an ordinary woman riding a terrifying seesaw, determined to somehow find a way to hold on.

Don Aucoin can be reached at