As musicals go, next to normal, as it is styled without capitals, is not exactly your standard fare. Foregoing much of the sound and fury of its more lavish contemporaries, it opts instead to be an intricately crafted study of mental illness and its effects on the lives of an otherwise run-of-the-mill suburban family. Wildly acclaimed during its Broadway run, having won three Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the musical is one of the highlights of the Hangar Theatre’s main summer lineups and its penultimate production for the season.
The play deals with the worsening bipolar disorder of stay-at-home mother Diana Goodman (played by the acerbic Andrea Burns) and the destructive effects it has on her family, consisting of bespectacled loving-but-boring husband Dan (Chris Hoch, of the chiseled jaw), emo and overachieving daughter Natalie (played to brattish perfection by Alison McCartan) and teenage son Gabe (Noah Plomgren). Diana initially appears fine, notwithstanding apparent sexual frustration with her husband, but when she’s caught making sandwiches on the floor, things take a turn for the very bad. In an apparent indictment of the pill-popping zeitgeist of modern psychiatric treatment, Diana’s medications fail to restore her life’s balance and instead tip her into a zombie-like state of unfeeling. Frustrated, she throws away her medication and switches to a new therapist, Dr. Madden (played by a diabolically hairless Nehal Joshi), who talks her through her issues rather than dosing her with drugs. She enjoys a short reprieve, but in a very clever, almost Fincher-esque plot twist, the hitherto unknown underlying cause of her condition is revealed, heralding a catastrophic mental breakdown that eventually leads to her receiving electro-convulsive therapy (shock treatment for the uninitiated) and subsequently suffering memory loss.
It’s not all about Diana, however. Supportive husband Dan is shown suffering as he struggles to find a way to help his wife and to cope with the situation, and bit-by-bit the reasons for Natalie being such a brat are revealed, making her character gradually more sympathetic. Her stoner boyfriend Henry (Adam Fontana) provides (often dazed) emotional support to her maternal abandonment issues. The central theme of this narrative is how this dysfunctional family struggles to come to an existence that is, if not normal, then next to normal. Hence the title.
Next to normal is a sensitive and — importantly — authentic study of mental illness that’s told through the admittedly unlikely medium of musical theatre. Surprisingly, it works not despite, but rather because of how smartly written and full of subtext and complexity the lyrics are. The musical numbers are evocative on a wide range of musical styles — from the country-esque lament “I Miss the Mountains,” sung so pensively by Diana (Burns), to the teenage, comic book allusion-ridden “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” sung by Natalie and Gabe (McCartan and Plomgren). The musicality of the play allows for thematic devices to be instituted in a way that can be difficult in a regular play. For example, the parallels between Diana and Dan’s relationship and that of Natalie and Henry’s are wonderfully expressed in the number “A Promise,” in which both couples harmonize a single tune with the same lyrics, reaffirming their continual support of each other in trying times. The music and lyrics help transform the story into something akin to poetry, with its layered subtext, and adds emotional texture and complexity to the characters.
However, despite being a production that exhibits the sheen of painstaking refinement, with its smart songs and a well-crafted narrative pulsing with emotional power, it’s hard not to notice that underneath it all, next to normal’s story is not particularly original. Being an archetypal study of mental illness, it approaches the subject courageously and authentically, but conventionally. The bare-bones plot itself is almost a cliché in how it goes through the laundry list of required narrative hinges. The unconventional presentation of subject matter belies what is at its heart almost a soap opera about the travails of a suburban family that has to grapple with the specter of mental illness. As an archetypal ‘mental illness’ story, however, next to normal is perhaps difficult to fault for being so by the book about the blow-by-blow stages of progressive mental breakdown and recovery. It’s a relief that the technical and writing chops of the production hold up the story such that the cliché rarely becomes trite.
All in all, next to normal is an accomplished, authentic “play that people happen to sing,” as the show’s director Tracy Bridgen puts it. Don’t let the presence of musical numbers mislead you — this is one production that ventures to explore the power of the stage musical with a theme often spoken in hushed tones, if at all.
Next to normal plays at The Hangar Theatre every day except Mondays through Sept. 1.