‘Next To Normal’: Drama confronts mental illness

‘Next To Normal’: Drama confronts mental illness

“Next to Normal,” writes New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, “does not … qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.”

Although the show, which won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Original Score, is rich with music by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, that’s not why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Or why “an incredibly professional and talented bunch of human beings” came together in Northwest Arkansas to present it without a theater, without any money and without even a name for their company.

“There are many moments that do stand out, as the writing is award-winning and the rehearsal performances by my cast members just incredible to watch,” Jason LeCompte says of “Next to Normal.” “It is an honor to work on this show and to bring my own feelings and experiences to the character, and in some ways it has been almost cathartic to explore those character relationships and situations from the stage, and from the viewpoint of my character.” (Courtesy Photo/Alex Andrews)

“It is impossible to quantify the impact that telling a story like ‘Next to Normal’ will have on this community and all those who can come into contact with it,” says Taylor Dolan, the play’s director and one of the founders of the “Next to Normal Project.” Selling even 50 seats for each of eight shows will touch 400 people, according to her math, and one in four Americans has a mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

“So 100 out of those 400 people are going to see parts of their story on stage, being told unashamedly and without judgement,” Dolan continues. “One hundred out of 400 people are going to see that their experiences are valid, and that getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness. For me, that is reason enough to put on this production, but let’s keep going.

“Let’s say that those 400 people each tell one person in their lives about this show, about the revelations concerning the negative impact of our societal stigmas, about the beautiful singing and raw emotion — all of a sudden, the story has reached 800 people. The numbers could go on and on! You can see how, very quickly, theater has the potential to start ripples of change.”

Dolan also has a personal stake in the story. She was first introduced to “Next to Normal” the same time she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

“Every scene that Natalie (Sydney Schnurbusch) and Henry (Jacob Andrews) have together is heartwarming. You can hear an audible ‘awwww’ from the rest of the cast when they do their scenes, so I think the audience will have the same reaction,” says director Taylor Dolan. Pictured downstage are Jason LeCompte and Sarah Nickerson. (Courtesy Photo/Alex Andrews)

“Hearing the songs in this show made me realize that my feelings and struggles were valid.”

The plot involves a suburban family that is, on the surface, perfectly normal. Dad’s an architect. Mom does all the prescribed mom things. And the son and daughter are described as bright, wise-cracking teens. But Mom has been battling bipolar disorder — sometimes called manic depression — for most of two decades, and “next to normal” is as close as she can get.

Sarah Nickerson, most recently seen as the Witch in the Arts Center of the Ozarks production of “Into the Woods,” plays Diana Goodman, the mom.

“Diana really runs the gamut of emotions,” she says of her character. “It’s a challenging role for a woman-of-a-certain-age, which I am always looking for. Once I really started to know the show, I knew this was my chance to learn an entirely new-to-me perspective on life. That’s what theater does, and I am so lucky to have this opportunity.

“I find the beauty of having lived a few years is that it’s afforded me a life of experiences. I have loved and lost and felt joy and sorrow of all degrees. I have felt lost and low and seen myself and others close to me through all manner of times. All of this helps color my character choices for Diana.”

Jason LeCompte, a newcomer to Northwest Arkansas theater with a Chicago pedigree, is her husband, Dan.

“The actors playing Diana and Dan are so completely tuned into their roles,” says Brandon Hamilton (right), who plays the parts of two doctors. “Every single one of these beautiful performers brings authenticity to their roles.” (Courtesy Photo/Alex Andrews)

“I love playing this character because I feel like he represents a lot of what modern-day American men face: many different responsibilities, not a lot of space for his own issues to be addressed, and certainly not much room for his own feelings to be heard or needs to be met,” he says. “As a marriage and family therapist, and as someone with his own difficult familial relationships, nearly everything about this show hits close to home.”

Son Gabe is portrayed by Aaron Young, most recently seen as Davey in “Newsies” at Arkansas Public Theatre.

“I think that I was similar to Gabe growing up in a lot of ways,” he muses. “Gabe in the show is this 17, almost 18, year old kid that is a little full of himself. You can definitely see his cockiness in his relationship with his mom where he tries to push the boundaries and see how much he can get away with. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little cocky when I was his age.

“This show really depicts many of the hardest trials that a family can go through,” he adds. “So as an actor taking on the thoughts and feelings of the character, immersing yourself in this story can be emotionally taxing. But the truth is this story needs to be heard.”

“I feel like there is a blue-collar, suburban feel to this nuclear family — very similar to the way I grew up,” says actor Jason LeCompte (left), who plays Dan, the husband and father. “The role model that I had in a father at least partly informs this character for me, but I think I’ve also brought my own understanding of caregiving, marriage, and familial responsibility to this role.” (Courtesy Photo/Alex Andrews)

Brandon Hamilton, who played Joe Gillis in the APT production of “Sunset Boulevard” and Rapunzel’s Prince in ACO’s “Into the Woods,” plays two doctors, Diana’s psychopharmacologist and her therapist. He says they are among the most difficult roles he has ever played.

“It is tough to play a character as real,” he says. “I have only played larger-than-life characters, and it takes real talent to play a believable, ‘normal’ human being.”

He was also challenged, he says, as a “new member of the anxiety club,” something he experienced during the pandemic as his paying job was put on hold.

“I recently had a terrible side-effect experience from taking a prescribed anxiety medication,” he says. “It was an incredibly difficult week, that gave me an all too clear picture of what mental illness could really be like.

“I have had some of the most honest and revealing conversations about mental health with people, from all walks of my life, since I started rehearsing this show,” Hamilton adds. “It has been one of the most beautiful aspects of being cast. So, it is my sincere hope that audiences experience the same thing.”

“Every scene that Natalie (Sydney Schnurbusch) and Henry (Jacob Andrews) have together is heartwarming. You can hear an audible ‘awwww’ from the rest of the cast when they do their scenes, so I think the audience will have the same reaction,” says director Taylor Dolan. Pictured downstage are Jason LeCompte and Sarah Nickerson. (Courtesy Photo/Alex Andrews)


‘Next to Normal’

WHEN — 7 p.m. Aug. 12-14; 3 p.m. Aug. 15; the second week of shows has been canceled due to covid-19 concerns

WHERE — CACHE 214, 214 S. Main St. in Springdale (the space formerly known as ACO)

COST — $20

TICKETS — tinyurl.com/N2N-theplay

FYI — Rounding out the cast are Sydney Schnurbusch as Natalie and Jacob Andrews as Henry. Kailey Miller Erwin is music director.

Categories: Theater