Beautiful chaos: Musical at Red House offers poignant look at family’s struggle with mental illness

(From Left) Natalie, played by Kate Metroka, hugs her boyfriend Henry, played by Tim Murray, at the Red House's production of "Next To Normal." Courtesy of Jessie Dobrzynski
(From Left) Natalie, played by Kate Metroka, hugs her boyfriend Henry, played by Tim Murray, at the Red House’s production of “Next To Normal.” Courtesy of Jessie Dobrzynski

A family sings “Just Another Day” while the son and daughter get ready for school, the father gets ready for work and the mother packs them all their lunches.

But their morning takes a turn for the crazy — literally — when the mother, Diana Goodman, played by Laura Austin, starts to make sandwiches on the floor.

That’s what you can expect from the musical “Next to Normal.” Directed by Stephen Svoboda, the show opened at the Red House Arts Center on Jan. 24 and runs through Feb. 8. The book and lyrics were written by Brin Yorkey, with music composed by Tom Kitt.

The show sheds light on the imperfections of psychiatry. The family — Diana, her husband Dan (John Keckeisen), their daughter Natalie (Kate Metroka) and son Gabe (Ian Jordan Subsara) — all struggle with mental illness.

Other members of the cast include Natalie’s boyfriend Henry (Tim Murray) and Diana’s doctors, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden (Jason Timothy), who are played by the same person.

The cast is going to be busy, as the same members will perform in “Pterodactyls,” a show with similar structure and theme as “Next to Normal.” The two musicals are being played on alternating days until Feb. 8. Svoboda described the second show as “‘Gilmore Girls’ gone dark” in a Red House video.

In “Next To Normal,” Diana has struggled with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has frequent delusional episodes. She is forced to take medication because of it. Her daughter Natalie copes with her mother’s illness by becoming rebellious and turning to drugs.

Even though Diana has been struggling with her disorder for a long time, Dan continues, almost naively, to remain hopeful that she will be OK, and that their marriage will return to the way it was during their 20s.

While breaching a serious topic, the play illustrates the subject matter through a comedic standpoint. This includes scenes of the parents talking about their sex lives with their daughter and exposing the family’s problems through rock music.

The Red House offered an intimate perspective for the audience, as the theater’s size allowed the audience to get an up-close experience with the performance. The stage, or lack thereof, was on the floor directly in front of audience members, which allowed them to get more involved in the storyline.

The play succeeds in showing the ethics involved in today’s psychiatry through the song “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I.” “Who’s Crazy” offered a comedic spin on the issues and dangers of psychiatric medication, revealing that after 18 years of coping with her disorder, Diana’s treatment was still a trial-and-error process instead of a specific procedure. It also showed there is no exact cure.

Diana illustrates her frustration after trying numerous medications and realizing that treatment for a mental illness is not a “very exact science,” as she laments to her doctor in the first act.

The scene also reveals the often negative side effects of medication, showing that it does not necessarily make a person better, but can add more problems to the mix, both personally and within the family.

The crew’s use of lighting reflected the mood and tone of each scene. The costume designs of the characters mirrored their personalities impeccably, especially Natalie’s boyfriend Henry, whose stoner persona was accentuated through his laid-back clothing and beanie.

The play takes a turn for the clever when its lyrics reference popular culture such as “The Sound of Music” — describing different medications and singing “these are a few of my favorite pills” — and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Not only were the lyrics witty, but they were delivered beautifully, hitting the highs and lows with ease. The songs grabbed the audience’s attention and never let go, despite the length of the two-and-a-half-hour musical.

Subsara, the actor who played son Gabe, delivered an especially strong performance. His voice was filled with emotion and spirit, allowing the audience to get swept up in the plotline, especially in the second act’s song “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling.”

That sentiment was shared by audience members, as his performance received the most applause by the end of the show.

“Next To Normal” does a magnificent job at portraying dark topics through comedy and rock music. It offers an intense portrayal of a family rocked by mental illness. Whether one can relate to mental health struggles, there’s something in the play for everyone.

Original story here.

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1 thought on “Beautiful chaos: Musical at Red House offers poignant look at family’s struggle with mental illness

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