Enter the world of NEXT TO NORMAL’s Goodman family, handsomely in residence at Writers Theatre, and it all looks…good. According to Dan Goodman, he built the house “with patience and care” to meet his family’s domestic needs. An architect’s dream design.
What looks good, however, is far from it. The dreams up and down the chic stairway and around the efficient kitchen island are closer to nightmares. They begin as soon as Diana, wife and mother, sings her opening lines in this wrenching musical about mental illness. When Dan asks Diana to buys groceries because he’s “slammed” at work, she refuses. Soon she’s laying sliced bread on the floor to make a stack of unneeded sandwiches as teenage daughter Natalie watches with anguished resignation. Whatever work deadlines await him, her father must yet again drop everything and get her delusional mother to a psychiatrist.
Desperation fills every inch of Writers Theatre
We may be an over-medicated society but lyricist/book writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt show how the torment of bipolar disease leads people to try anything for relief. That becomes a central question: After multiple grueling treatments for Diana, Dan asks “Which is worse? The symptoms or the cure?” Diana’s condition, prompted by a traumatic loss 17 years earlier, sucks the oxygen out of their marriage. It also forces Natalie to operate as an afterthought, dodging her mother’s madness to strive academically and navigate first love.
Desperation fills every inch of the stage as the functional objects of these characters’ lives roll around them. Actors and stage crew push everything -- the kitchen island, an armchair, a computer stand – so smoothly in David Cromer’s production, they seem in sync with the minds of the people onstage. Physical locations shift right along with psychological perspectives.
NEXT TO NORMAL’s glowing cast
A 2009 Tony Award winner, NEXT TO NORMAL is a sing-through musical with limited spoken dialogue, one number flowing into another with few spots of joy along the way. This is, after all, a portrait of a woman whose unrelenting grief inflicts pain on her loved ones. But a story well told, regardless of subject matter, will endure. In this viewer’s opinion, Cromer’s revival puts NEXT TO NORMAL right in that category.
Also in this viewer’s opinion, the cast brings a glowing humanity to every scene. Keely Vasquez as Diana rarely escapes the prison of her mind to consider others, and yet she keeps us on her side throughout. David Schlumpf as Dan conveys both suffering and love with profound depth. Kyrie Courter captivates as Natalie, mingling anger with immense coping skills and a yearning for motherly attention. Alex Levy, the teen jazz-pianist and stoner who falls for her, radiates irresistible goodness. Liam Oh provides the specter of lost potential with haunting charm. Even Gabriel Ruiz as the psychiatrist who puts Diana through treatment hell projects a genuine decency.
NEXT TO NORMAL lays bare the harsh consequences of Diana’s condition on her family. Love does not triumph over mental illness. And yet it matters. “Do you know what it’s like to die alive?” asks Diana. Amid all the pharmaceuticals for such a troubled mind, love is the only medicine that can reach the soul.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
David Cromer (Director)
Harmony France (Assistant Director)
Andra Velis Simon (Music Director)
Ellen Morris (Assistant Music Director)
Regina Garcia (Scenic Designer)
Rachel Anne Healy (Costume Designer)
Keith Parham (Lighting Designer)
Christopher M. LaPorte (Co-Sound Designer
Ray Nardelli (Co-Sound Designer)
Bobby Kennedy (Dramaturg)
Eamon Foley (Choreographer)
Rebecca Pechter (Production Stage Manager)
Now through June 23
Tuesdays – Fridays @ 7:30 PM
Saturdays @ 3:00 & 7:30 PM
Sundays @ 2:00 & 6:00 PM
325 Tudor Court
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.