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Next to Normal

Strong performances make this musical about mental illness worth seeing

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Feb. 17, 2012

Mom's off her meds: Meredith McCall, Kelli Schultz, and Jamie Goodwin
Mom's off her meds: Meredith McCall, Kelli Schultz, and Jamie Goodwin
Photo courtesy of Kirk R. Tuck

Next to Normal

Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 476-0541
www.zachtheatre.org
Through March 4
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

At the opening, we see a woman waiting up late for her teenage son to return home. The mother, Diana (Meredith McCall), seems a bit high-strung, but nothing appears too far out of the ordinary for this family as it navigates the ins and outs of daily life – until the next morning, when Diana slides off the rails and it's clear she's not altogether well. The title of this musical (music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) pretty much says it: Nothing is "normal" in this family. They all live somewhere to the side of whatever normal might be.

Diana is severely bipolar. She and her husband Dan (Jamie Goodwin) experienced tragedy 18 years ago, and while Dan has picked up the pieces, Diana has become trapped by her illness and misery, unable to hold up her end of the deal as wife or mother. Dan and their genius-level daughter Natalie (Kelli Schultz) scrape by, trying and failing to keep Diana's illness from dominating their lives.

The subject matter won't appeal to everyone, but for those who have navigated the labyrinth of mental illness, either their own or a loved one's, this is a deeply affecting story. Under the direction of Zach Theatre Artistic Director Dave Steakley, Next to Normal gives dignity to what is otherwise a pretty undignified situation: a wife who can't be trusted to drive much of the time and a daughter who has become ashamed and afraid of her own mother.

Whether or not the subject matter is to one's liking, however, the performances are excellent. McCall has a hefty résumé of appearances on Zach stages, and her work here is among the best of what I've seen. Diana is not without some sense of humor and self-awareness, and McCall portrays the tortured woman in such a way that her torment and anger make sense to the outsider – an achievement, considering that, to an observer, the bipolar individual so often appears deeply irrational.

There's a trap in Next to Normal, however. Creating a musical – or a movie or a novel – about someone experiencing a lifelong condition is tricky, because "lifelong condition" does not quite lend itself to the traditional plot structure of Western theatre. (What's the arc supposed to be if the problem is never going away?) Next to Normal does a fair job of making the condition into a story. We see Diana's illness coming to a head (so to speak) and the impact this has on her family. But the bipolar condition isn't healed; it gets managed. To that end, in being honest and respectful of what this mental illness is actually like, the ending of Next to Normal doesn't quite have the punch it's after.

Ultimately, the reasons to see Next to Normal are the strong performances and the potentially cathartic experience of watching this family force its way through horrible times. Zach has created a production that serves those aims admirably.

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