“Next to Normal” is not an easy play to do. It pulls emotional strings so tight you wonder what can possibly happen next. And then it happens.
So when Watham resident Donnie Baillargeon began directing the Tony Award-winning musical to kick off Vokes Theatre’s new season, he brought in a mental health professional to watch rehearsals to see whether the scenes and acting rang true.
After all, the lead character is a mother with bipolar disorder, which blasts through her family, softly and explosively. “It’s cathartic for all the characters,” said Baillargeon. “It’s a story of grief, and how this unresolved grief can screw up your life.”
With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, “Next to Normal” displays a family in crisis, from the mentally struggling mother to her persevering husband to their gifted teenage daughter. The Vokes production will open Oct. 31 at the troupe’s theater in Wayland.
“I’d heard about the show, but I didn’t know it well,” said Baillargeon. “I read the script and was completely hooked right off the bat. It’s a compelling story.”
Helen Sullivan, a licensed mental health counselor from Wayland whom Baillargeon consulted, agreed. “I read the script and thought it was realistic,” said Sullivan. “Donnie just wanted someone in the field to see if the actors got it right, and if he, as director, got it right. I gave the actors some insight.”
Particularly grateful was Lea Oppedisano, who plays the central role, Diana. After landing the part in May, the Hopkinton resident said, “I had the whole summer to read the play. I tried to learn the basis of the disease, and the behavior.”
Still, it’s helpful to have a psychologist in the theater. “Helen is available if we have any questions. I want to know if I’m on the right track. There are a lot of layers to the story. It’s very challenging,” Oppedisano said.
“I think the husband is well-intentioned, but is sort of in denial,” she added. “I think he thinks he understands his wife’s illness, and what she goes through on a daily basis. The daughter, Natalie, feels her mother is the center of attention, and feels she’s not being heard or seen or even loved by her parents.”
It all sounds heavy, but there are humorous and carefree moments. The play has 37 musical numbers, directed by Howard Boles of Marlborough.
Baillargeon has directed several musicals — “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Sweeney Todd,” “On the Twentieth Century,” to name a few — for Vokes and for the Concord Players.
“Next to Normal” is like none of those classics. “It’s not a rock musical, but it’s rock-styled,” he said. “The music connects the dots,’’ he said, but the play “is a difficult animal to work with. It deals with age-old family issues.”
Oppedisano, a former Natick resident with two children, has a degree in musical theater. She’s performed at Arlington Friends of the Drama and Newton’s Turtle Lane Playhouse, and met Baillargeon when she was cast in “Nine,” which he produced at Vokes.
For both of them, doing “Next To Normal” became, if not an obsession, something they couldn’t let slip away.
How are they all doing with the sensitive nature of the play? “They’re doing their parts well,” said Sullivan.