WHAT IS WORSE? SYMPTOM OR CURE?
Diana Goodman (Keely Vasquez) and her husband Dan (David Schlumpf) have built a nearly ideal life. Two children. An upper-middle class home. And a truly loving connection early on in the compelling David Cromer-directed musical, “Next to Normal,” which opened at Writers Theatre Wednesday evening. But Diana’s day-to-day reality is consumed by a series of memories that keep her unsettled during the day and awake at night—some raw, troubling and filled with sadness; others suffused with euphoria and light. “Everything is perfect,” she sings, “Nothing’s real.”
Diana suffers from bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by extreme shifts in sensory and emotional perception, causing a host of positive symptoms in the manic state and then shifting bluntly to create confusion, fatigue and mind-numbing depression with no known direct cause or cure. The periods of severe depression are always initiated by an emotional trigger—a picture, birthday, a memory, sound or smell—that can spiral the patient into a debilitating, delusional state. Psychotherapy, medication and, in extreme cases, electroconvulsive therapy are the only treatments available, leaving the patient and their loved ones with the anguished question that resides at the powerful core of “Next to Normal”: “What is worse? Symptom or cure?”
This riveting emotional journey plays out in the ground-breaking Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Award winner—with music by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey—in an electrifying sung-through rock score. Cromer, the 2018 Tony Award-winning director of “The Band’s Visit,” has assembled an extraordinary cast led by Vasquez, whose performance resides simultaneously in momentary bewilderment, joy, sadness, love and loss, elevating the complex and deeply layered role of Diana to a painful reality. The source of depression in Schlumpf’s searing portrait of the loving caregiver lies just below the surface until the futility of the situation becomes too much for him to bear.
The most troubling result of the chaos in the Goodman family is reflected in the children—played by Kyrie Courter (daughter Natalie) and Liam Oh (son Gabe)—and Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry (Alex Levy). Natalie is an aspiring classical pianist who attracts the attention of the free-spirited musician Henry and lapses into drug dependency due to her mother’s inattention. The tender first-love relationship that develops between Natalie and Henry is touching and true. The cast is rounded out by the fine performance of Gabriel Ruiz in the dual roles of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine.
Under the musical direction of Andra Velis Simon, the challenging, interwoven score is masterfully delivered by Vasquez and Schlumpf with fascinating elements of counter melodies with Courter and Levy. The work hits new heights when the commanding vocals of Vasquez and Courter come together in anguish and grief. You will also be looking forward to each and every opportunity to witness Oh—a Northwestern undergraduate making his Writers Theatre debut—in a soaring portrayal of Gabe that is uniquely all his own.
“Next to Normal” is a deeply personal experience, briskly staged by Cromer on a glistening Regina García set, and packed with opportunities to explore our own feelings, the confusion and pain that mental illness brings to those we love, and our own inability to cope. Recognizing that a problem exists and seeking professional help is the first step. Then it becomes an exploration that can often lead to losing one’s ability to make his or her own decisions. The question then becomes: Is the risk worth the outcome, even if all the alternatives have been considered? And where does it go from there? According to Dan, “The truth of it is no one really knows.”