Mirvish’s production of Next To Normal is a poignant and thoughtful depiction of mental illness. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 for its creative team, Brian Yorker and Tom Kitt. Next To Normal is a musical which works extraordinarily well. I think it’s because many of the pieces are done in a fugue-like manner, with two or more interweaving voices. The complexity and richness of the music and lyrics acts as a counterpoint to the set which is stark, yet elegant. It transitions between the home of two architects, and a psychiatrist’s office/clinic. The back wall which is paneled with translucent screens signals transitions in space and mood as its colour changes. It’s very effective.
The story introduces us to a family in which the wife and mother, Diana (Ma-Anne Dionisio), has had recurring encounters with mental illness since the birth of their daughter, Natalie (Stephanie Sy) sixteen years ago. The husband and father, Dan (Troy Adams), is both stalwart and anxious. The only family member who has an apparently healthy relationship with Diana is the son, Gabe (Brandon Antonio). The interactions between these two are typical of a cavalier teenage boy and his worried mother. We understand more about their relationship on the night of Gabe’s eighteenth birthday, when Natalie brings her new boyfriend (Nathan Carrol) to the family dinner table. It’s a plot churning moment to say the least. The acting is intense and on point at all times. Louise Pitre as Doctor Madden has a smaller but by no means lesser part. She’s a figurative (and in the play…literal) rock star of a psychiatrist who guides Diana and Dan through treatment options.
While this description of an evening’s entertainment may sound grim, the play is anything but that. It offers hope. And that’s important when we consider that one on five Canadians will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives. The reality is that few people escape the grief of mental illness whether by affliction or association.
Next To Normal is a play about a family who may never achieve ‘normal’, but it is a family who will be content to live as close to normal as they can. The night I attended, the audience gave this performance a standing ovation. It’s perhaps the second I have seen in my seven years of attending Off Mirvish productions.
Next To Normal is at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto until May 19, 2019
Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.