Review: Avon Players Addresses Mental Illness with ‘Next to Normal’

 

“It’s always about you, isn’t it?”

A loaded question that the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Next to Normal, The Musical attempts to unpack regarding the main character Diana Goodman’s (played by Jennifer Combs) struggle with mental illness. Specifically Bipolar I Disorder with psychotic features.

Joining Diana on this journey is her loyal husband Dan (Dan Romzek), surly daughter Natalie (Aubrey Fink), and perfect son, Gabe (James Jenuwine). Rounding out the cast is Drs. Fine and Madden (both played by Ryan S. Moore) and Henry (Joseph Isaac), Natalie’s long-suffering boyfriend.

(L-R) Rochester Hills resident Aubrey Fink (Natalie) with Shelby Township resident Jennifer Combs (Diana Goodman) and Davison resident Dan Romzek (Dan Goodman) in Next to Normal.

(L-R) Rochester Hills resident Aubrey Fink (Natalie) with Shelby Township resident Jennifer Combs (Diana Goodman) and Davison resident Dan Romzek (Dan Goodman)
in ‘Next to Normal.’ Photo courtesy of Avon Players.

The play constantly teeters back-and-forth between thought-provoking and tongue-in-cheek moments as evidenced with the song, ‘Who’s Crazy/”My Psychopharmacologist and I.” After experimenting for weeks with a variety of medicinal cocktails, Diana tells Dr. Madden: “I don’t feel like myself. I mean, I don’t feel anything;” to which the good doctor replies: “Hm. Patient stable.”

In “Didn’t I See This Movie?” Diana alludes to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sylvia Plath, and Frances Farmer; a brutally honest acknowledgment that she is fully aware of how outsiders perceive her situation. And how everyone in her life has his or her own agenda for wanting her to get better. Everyone, including Diana, is looking for his or her own version of ‘normal.’

The entire cast is vocally strong and some of the play’s most powerful moments come when the Goodman family sings together, but extra kudos goes to the lead Jennifer Combs, who bears the weight of the vocal delivery and emotional drama.

Watching this play it is easy to draw comparisons to Rent in the way it tackles a tough subject that society has often considered taboo. However, while Rent primarily focused on HIV/AIDS, Next to Normal throws other topics such as suicide, depression, and drugs use into the mix, which at times makes it feels as if the play is spreading itself too thin. As Marissa Yardley of Rochester Hills cautioned after attending Saturday night’s performance, “We have to be careful not to stereotype or overgeneralize while trying to address so much. And it’s a lot of ground to cover in two-plus hours, but at least a dialogue has been started.

During the song “Aftershocks” in the second act, Gabe asks, “You wonder which is worse, the symptom or the cure?” He’s directing his question toward Diana, but it could easily be posed to the audience as well. And of course there is no easy answer. Instead, this poignant question is one the audience and society will be grappling with for years to come.

Next to Normal will be at Avon Players until Saturday, June 7. Call 248.608.9077 for tickets or order online at www.avonplayers.org. Please be advised that because of the mature subject matter and language, Next to Normal is not considered suitable for younger audiences.

Remaining show dates and times:

Friday, May 30         8:00 p.m.

Saturday, May 31     8:00 p.m.

Sunday, June 1         2:00 p.m.

Friday, June 6          8:00 p.m.

Saturday, June 7      8:00 p.m.

About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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