Ground Floor Theatre and Deaf Austin Theatre's Next to Normal

In this collaboration between the two companies, having signing actors and speaking actors perform side by side provides a uniquely engaging experience

Photo by Dave Hawks

As a critic, I've always made a point to not research plays before attending them. Since going in clear-headed is a solid way to foster honest first impressions, I'll regularly steer clear of synopses, cast lists, etc. Admittedly, it's not a perfect science, but it's a method I stand behind, because every so often I'll experience a show like Next to Normal for the first time – with a truly one-of-a-kind staging.

In keeping with Ground Floor Theatre's stated mission of theatre for underrepresented communities, the company has teamed up with the nonprofit Deaf Austin Theatre to stage this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical with a dual cast of both hearing and deaf actors. Unlike other ASL-inclusive performances, which usually relegate interpreters to an offstage corner, Ground Floor's latest sees these signing actors performing synchronously alongside their vocal counterparts.

While there isn't much precedent for this sort of inclusive presentation, Next to Normal ultimately proves a solid choice of script for pioneering this concept. The 2008 Broadway hit's main strength is its small cast of distinct and nuanced characters, and having two performers tackle each (save for Riley Wesson, who impressively plays Gabe in both English and ASL) only makes them that much richer.

GFT founder Lisa Scheps and DAT director Brian Cheslik here exhibit a solid co-directorial partnership, which fills this performance with so much life. Under their mindful eyes, each individual character is simultaneously imbued with two unique physicalities, blockings, costumes, and energies. For example, in the lead role of Diana, speaking actor Kerry McGinnis presents the troubled matriarch with reserved albeit shaken strength, while ASL performer Megg Rose plays the same role with energetic, palpable fear. These performances never contradict the other, and instead build off one another to make Diana a dynamic, three-dimensional character.

On the other side of the coin is the fluidity of the cast's interactions. Often within the same scene, actors switch between addressing a character's ASL and speaking performers (and occasionally will address their own counterpart directly). This ease of interaction is perhaps best encapsulated by deaf actor Sandra Mae Frank and her speaking counterpart, Maryanna Tolemache. Together, their shared chemistry strikes a bond reminiscent of siblings, which only heightens the visceral emotions surrounding their interactions with family patriarch Dan (played by Jim Lindsay and Seth Washington).

The script itself is known for tackling such subjects as mental health, self-harm, and grief head-on, leaving a lot for this cast to work with. As a result, there are a lot of takeaways – almost too many for one viewing. Oftentimes, I found myself wishing I had a separate pair of eyes, as I was strategically choosing which performers to focus on in any given scene. For the most part, however, this doesn't impact the show's purposeful pace; you could focus on either actor in a shared role and not be any worse off for it.

In retrospect, I'm glad Ground Floor's inclusive staging was my first introduction to this musical. It's my hope that DAT collaborates with GFT again (or any local company willing to take a step toward deaf inclusion) soon. When they do, it's my wish that it be on another play I haven't seen yet, because I'm hard-pressed to think of a more uniquely engaging way to experience a show and all its complexities, for the first time.

Next to Normal

Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale #122
Through Dec. 22
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

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Ground Floor Theatre, Deaf Austin Theatre, Lisa Scheps, Brian Cheslik, Kerry McGinnis, Megg Rose, Sandra Mae Frank, Maryanna Tolemache, Roley Wesson, Jim Lindsay, Seth Washington

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