Next to Normal mostly avoids the pitfalls of dramatizing mental illness

The first act of Next to Normal is brilliant. As almost everyone surely knows by now, the subject is an unusual one for a musical: a woman's long struggle with bipolar disorder. Mental illness is hard to dramatize. Most attempts degenerate into sob-sodden sagas about someone's obsessive pill- and therapist-aided self-examination. While the person directly affected experiences a world seething with vivid activity, for those on the outside, emotional breakdown can be as boring as it is distressing. It's relentlessly repetitive, for one thing: an itch, twitch, chemical, electrical or emotional imbalance that causes constant repetition of the same behaviors. I had a friend who was bipolar. She was generous-spirited, acerbic, eccentric and so damn witty that she once had a New York cabbie weeping with laughter through an entire twenty-minute ride. But if she was a wonderful friend, her fragility was also a weapon. Her voice on the phone meant you were in for an hours-long monologue about her life; her suicide attempts were so frequent and so well advertised in advance that you were terrified of disagreeing with her about anything.

Still, for a long time, Next to Normal avoids the pitfalls. The protagonist, Diana, played with charm and strength by Alice Ripley, is smart, unself-pitying and self-aware. The script and lyrics are smart, too, and thoughtful, with soul-restoring moments of humor. Author Brian Yorkey shows the limits of therapy in treating bipolar disorder but doesn't fall into the trap of making the play's two therapists caricatures (even if after Diana says she no longer feels anything, the first responds by saying that's good; it means she's stable).

If mental illness has its limitations as a dramatic trope, love doesn't. In Next to Normal, love is abundant, and our sympathy shifts continually among Diana's family members. Her husband, Dan — played with weary depth by Curt Hansen — is strong and caring. He may not understand his wife, he may be prone to repressing painful truths himself, but he's never obtuse. Daughter Natalie is a sulky, fling-about perfectionist, and Emma Hunton makes her just off-kilter enough to be endearing. An inspired plot point brings in Dan and Diana's dead son, the hungriest of hungry ghosts, stridently demanding his place at the table.

Whether yearning, rippling or raucously rocking, Tom Kitt's music is perfect, and the few crystalline piano notes of what sounds like Mozart tellingly evoke not only Natalie's desperate attempts to order her world, but the legendary music of the spheres themselves, once reputed to bring the entire universe into harmony. Visually stimulating and beautiful, a three-tiered set by Mark Wendland provides a fluid playground for the cast, whose bodies — thanks to Kevin Adams's lighting — make elegant shapes as they move from tier to tier.

A little way into act two, however, I found myself losing interest. Poor Diana kept struggling for sanity. Dead son Gabe threw increasingly frantic attention-demanding fits. And Natalie — such an interesting girl at first — lost all particularity. When she first abandoned Mozart for jazz, it was riveting, an obvious tumble into the kind of chaos enveloping her mother, but also an opening of the self to possibility, perhaps the kind of ecstatic freedom Diana extolled when she tossed away her mind-numbing pills: "I miss the mountains/I miss the dizzy heights/All the manic magic days/And the dark depressing nights." But artistic Natalie, searching Natalie is gone. Second-act Natalie spends her time guzzling her mother's pills, singing self-pitying songs and fending off the overtures of Henry, the sweet stoner who loves her. (Why? Unless Henry has serious mental issues of his own, he should be running like hell.) Diana, having achieved a brief, moving reconciliation with her daughter, moves out on the entire family. Dan's supposed moment of enlightenment feels unconvincing. Everyone's miserable. Everyone weeps. The set and lights lose contour and subtlety, and the music melds into a loud, undifferentiated lament. When the cast stands to sing ecstatically that "There Will Be Light," the only possible response is: Really?

How do you end a show about mental illness with truth and grace? Is there any real hope for Diana and her family? All I could think of as Dan and Natalie came together in a brief moment I'd like to have seen explored further were the words spoken by Sonya at the end of Uncle Vanya: "What can we do? We must live our lives.... We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings.... Beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us...and...we shall rest."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman