next to normal shows us the day-to-day struggles of someone with severe hallucinations and depression, from establishing medication regimes to attempting suicide to dealing with the side-effects of ECT: this is the musical treatment of the lived experiences of a bipolar woman and her family.
Should you see it?
Diana lost her first child almost seventeen years ago and that loss has sent her into a lifetime of manic depression, otherwise known as bipolar disorder. Her husband Dan struggles to remain patient and hopeful despite being exhausted, and her daughter Natalie adjusts as best she can to not only having her mother ignore her but also to never being able to live up to her lost brother’s legacy. next to normal does an excellent job showing how living with mental illness is a challenge for everyone involved.
The journey that we take with the characters is appropriately complex and meaningful. I was particularly moved by Natalie’s relationship with her boyfriend, Henry. Aidan Shenkman did an amazing job portraying a young, sensitive man fully devoted to his girlfriend but also unsure of what to do to support her. Watching Justice Tremblay’s Natalie descend into her own madness was riveting, and I think it’s fair to say that Skye MacDiarmid’s portrayal of Diana held the show together.
What intrigued me most, however, was the son character. He’s on stage throughout the show, dressed normally and interacting realistically with others, so it’s initially easy to believe he’s alive and with them. Only slowly is it revealed that the adult Gabriel exists solely in Diana’s mind. This theatrical treatment of a hallucination was eerie and effective, particularly at the hands of Patrick Teed who effortlessly walks the fine line between a tragic hero and a powerful villain.
Overall, the cast does a great job showing us the fear, anxiety, resentment, anger, frustration, confusion, loss, and sadness that colors every aspect of life with mental illness without letting go of a sense of hope, light, and love. This is a gracious and well-conceived production of a contemporary, relevant, edgy show.
Musical theater fans in Ottawa are in for a treat: not only is next to normal a sung-through show with powerful tunes, it’s very well cast with performers who can handle emotionally and technically challenging songs with grace and strength. Despite what I found to be a saccharine final number, next to normal got a standing ovation on opening night and sold out its preview.
This show has a very limited run and shows like this don’t come around often, so if you’re interested in seeing this I would suggest snapping up tickets now before they’re all gone.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d love to know what you think. Did you cry during any of the songs, or was that just me? Do you or a loved one have experience with mental illness; if so, does this musical resonate or take artistic liberties? Join the discussion in the comments below!