Walking out of The Rep after the opening performance of "Next to Normal," I mused on the lyrical nature of an otherwise dramatic play. It is unusual and effective, especially in taking the audience to the highs and lows of its bipolar protagonist, and energizing what could have been a very music-less, hard-handed family drama. One is left with the satisfying sensation of having seen everything a stage can offer.
Singing her mood swings is Deb Lyons as Diana Goodman, a suburban wife and mother whose life and family have been derailed by her mental illness. She has been bipolar for almost 20 years, and it is worsening. By her side is her husband Dan (Jonathan Rayson), who is deeply in love with his wife and misses the healthy, youthful woman that he married. He waits for her in the car while she is analyzed by her psychiatrist, and does his best to comfort their teeage daughter, Natalie (Kristin Parker). Feeling neglected, Natalie accepts the romantic pursuits of her stoner classmate, Henry (Mo Brady).
With the dosage finally right, Diana laments the emotionlessness of her mood stabilizers, and in a fit, flushes her meds. Once the Goodmans realize that this was not a good idea, they continue their search for a way to cure Diana and return their family to normalcy. There's no easy way. It's possible you'll be in tears by intermission, or at least wondering how the actors do it every night without driving themselves insane.
It's sad, yes, but not at all sentimental — it's heartbreakingly real. The Goodmans are the family down the block and, were it not for the singing of their lines, one could easily forget that they're actors on a stage. Such is the nature of this musical drama, a rock 'n' roll descent into madness. The players do not exist in the song-and-dance paradise of most musicals. Lyons, especially, is agonizingly convincing. Her Diana is bizarre and hysterical, even sexy at times, and yet unstoppably calamitous. The audience witnesses her delusions and paranoia along with her, and yet Lyons still shocks us with the strange twists of her illness. Diana is a character that takes plenty of guts to play, and the way that Lyons steps up to the task makes it difficult to imagine another actress in her place.
She is given plenty of superb assistance by the rest of the cast, particularly Rayson and Parker, with whom she forms a tragic family triumvirate. The show is concerned not only with bipolar disorder itself but the rippling effect it has on the lives of others. Parker fills the role with the perfect angst-ridden passion; every swear word she utters feels unrehearsed, purely adolescent. Rayson's sangfroid is a powerful foil against the others in his unhinged family but he, too, is able to embody a profoundly unhappy man who is 20 years into an unfulfilling marriage.
The word that seems best to describe The Rep's "Next to Normal" proves that there can be a great truth in cliches, and it is a word that I overheard several times as I left the theater: It is a rollercoaster of a show if there ever was one, laughing and crying and intoxicated and, at times, all too lucid. Life is a messy topic, which is probably why we like to sometimes pretend that it can be put to music and thrown on the stage to have its problems solved. "Next to Normal" is hardly pretending; instead, its music yanks the drama to a new poignancy, creating a realness that, on opening night, brought the audience cheering to its feet.
Nicole Capri directs "Next to Normal," which plays at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through May 27.