WORDS / TAYLOR GLADWIN
In suburbia, the lives of the perfect family run like clockwork, and the idea of perfect being far too much to ask for. At least in the rock musical “Next to Normal,” produced by TheatreSquared in Fayetteville. The show ran from April 18th to May 12th at Walton Arts Center’s Nadine Baum Studios.
Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, Next to Normal takes us through the lives of a sister, brother, mother, and father and their individual roles that make them a family. Running a household is no easy job, especially for Diana (Rita Harvey), a woman struggling with bipolar disorder, a repressed sense of loss, and a longing for the freedom she had before she was a wife and mother. Each person’s inner battles spread like sickness through the rest of the house. It all seems perfect on the surface, but the reality is that perfection is an illusion.
After it becomes clear that Diana is suffering psychologically from bipolar disorder and other mental issues, such as depression, anxiety, and hallucinations, her husband Dan (Rob Sutton), wants their life to go back to being normal and uncomplicated. Diana’s worsening condition effects the entire family, and in the mists of trying to get her back to normal by taking prescription medications and enduring electro-shock therapy, their over-achieving daughter, Natalie (Caroline Kittrell) deals with being “the invisible girl” by dives headfirst into drug experimentation and spending time with her boyfriend, Henry, (Matt Edmonds) while her father pours all of his care into Diana.
The six member cast vigorously portray members of a family whose lives encounter loss, mental illness, drug abuse, and ethics in psychiatry. The actors’ sang, danced, and performed their roles with such velocity that one couldn’t help but be drawn into the story. The story asked questions like, does a family with hidden tension below the surface actually love each other, or is it a facade? And who’s crazy – the husband who doesn’t understand or the wife who is no longer happy?
By the end of the fifties, it’s no secret that women were finding themselves in psychiatrists’ offices, dissatisfied with their lives at home and confused as to why they weren’t happy like journalists, politicians, doctors, and advertisements said they should be. This specific kind of discontent even had a name, “the housewife’s syndrome.”
Eventually, after being described multiple medications that leave hear numb, Diana realizes that the problem wasn’t in her head, but in her soul. This part in the play touches on the idea that America is over-medicated on pills that have harmful side effects. The question of which is worse, the disease or the treatment, is presented. However, Dan wants Diana to be normal again, no matter what.
In the end, the illusion is shattered and it becomes clear to both cast and audience that perfection is too much to ask for, and too normal for human life, with all of its mistakes, neurosis, and creativity to imitate. The most we can hope for is being our own version of “next to normal.”