CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MENTAL ILLNESS
By Bonnie Goldberg
Families come in all shapes and sizes and configurations. They can be loving and supportive just as easily as they can be abusive and neglectful. No one has any control over which type of family unit one is born into, it’s clearly the luck of the draw, silver spoon or an empty bassinet.
Years ago, during an acting class, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey were given a challenge to compose a ten minute play, and they selected the unusual and difficult topic of electroshock therapy. Since that moment, the pair have morphed it, through workshops and major revisions, in New York City and Washington D.C., into the amazing musical “Next to Normal,” winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as a trio of 2009 Tony Awards.
Once called “Feeling Electric,” the music has been transformed, but the basic story of a mother Diana Goodman remains at its heart. Her struggles with a diagnosis and label of bi-polar depression have profound effects on her and on her family. You can become caught up in her trials and triumphs extended from now until Sunday, May 14 as “Next to Normal” schedules its intimate therapy sessions at Hartford’s TheaterWorks in a stirring presentation.
Christine Noll’s Diana is caught in an emotional whirlwind and has had her life churning out of control for sixteen years. The start of her medical issues coincides with the death of her baby son Gabe, a traumatic incident that still haunts her. She sees and speaks to him now, as a teenager, although no one else does. John Cardoza is the son who is lost but continually proclaims “I Am Alive.”
With a supportive husband Dan, an always present David Harris, she strives to be in the moment but can’t make it happen. Years of therapy and pills have failed, despite the best efforts of her doctors, all played by J. D. Daw, and a recent incident forces all concerned to consider extreme measures: shock therapy that may or may not work.
Possibly most affected by her mom is Natalie, portrayed by a conflicted Maya Keleher, who just wants a family who are “next to normal.” No miracles for this perceptive kid, just the promise of a little hope for the future. Luckily she has a good friend Henry, a romantic guy Nick Sacks, who tries to make her problems easier to bear.
Natalie yearns for a stable, even dull, family life, but an easy happy childhood is a reality she has never known. Now with Henry as a romantic interest in her life for the first time, she wants a mom she can confide in and get advice from, not the emotionally distant, roller coaster ride that is her lot in life.
The show is a “rock opera” with music that is soft and sad one minute and soaring and dramatic the next. The music is the spine and the glue that holds it together. The first song is about the busy, often cranky time at the start of the day and the final song is a message of hope. Throughout the drama, Diana's illness overshadows everything. The music propels the story of this dysfunctional family as if they are caught in the eye of a tornado.
Every situation has a song and they evoke laughter, tears, and a spectrum of all the emotions. The fluid dynamics capture a disturbed woman who is hearing “forty different television channels at the same time and can’t focus on any of them.” Rob Ruggiero directs this involving musical drama with a gentle hand.
For tickets ($60-75, $15 student rush, seniors Saturday matinee $35), call Hartford TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford at 860-527-7838 or online at www.theaterworkshartford.org. Performances are Tuesday to Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p
Hopefully the audience will gain more enlightenment about the growing epidemic of mental illness and how it affects the patient and everyone in the family.