Thursday's performance of Next to Normal didn't appear as well-attended as the rest of the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's opening nights this summer. Yet while this musical trip through a family's struggle with the mother's mental issues may not be as familiar as a Cats or Steel Magnolias, this isn't a piece to miss. The songs by Tom Kitt and book by Brian Yorkey are powerful testimonies to the reality of mental illness for those who suffer from it, and those who suffer through it alongside a loved one.
Director Matthew Teague Miller's production, though, is intriguingly problematic, in that what I think strengthens the second act - namely the cast's subtle and sincere performances - somewhat weakens the first. Kitt's music in the first half of the tale is driving, with rock influences and energetic tempos. Yet considering the relatively minimal movement and the performers' underplaying, plus scenic designer Steven P. House's admittedly inspired backdrop that looks like it was pulled from Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" music video, this staging, at first, plays a bit like Next to Normal in Concert. (And a poorly amplified concert, as the body microphones frequently distorted the actors' singing voices.)
The real issue, though, is Daniella Dalli's performance as Diana, the bipolar, schizophrenic, depressed mother still mourning the death of her infant son. While her singing is remarkable, I didn't believe her Diana to be crippled by mental instability. Dalli has beautiful moments expressing Diana's lucidity, as in her gently stirring delivery of "I Miss the Mountains" which perfectly captures a longing for emotional highs and lows while under the numbing influences of psychiatric drugs. However, this Diana is rarely manic, and while I admired the production overall, I also never really sensed that this family was more dysfunctional than any other.
Dalli, however, delivers an award-worthy performance in the second half of this Next to Normal, portraying an amnesiac Diana following electroconvulsive therapy. In these scene, I believed Diana was looking at her family, and the world, as if she'd never before seen them, and with a hope and desire to truly know them. Diana's gradual awakening from the effects of the ECT is, thanks to Dalli, the truest element of this production.
That's not to say that hers is the only truth on stage. The ever-notable Livvy Marcus blends humor and angst in memorable ways as Diana's daughter Natalie. Although Marcus sometimes delivers her jokes too obviously as jokes, Natalie has an endearing quality in the way the performer's own air of kindness is juxtaposed with Natalie's disquietude. This gives the impression that Natalie's surly attitude is a coping mechanism, and the troubled girl is suppressing her friendlier nature beneath it.
Jonathan Young offers what is, for me, his most striking performance of the summer in his understated take on Natalie's frequently high love interest Henry. Costume designer Amanda Warriner has him dressed to look more like a bookworm than a stoner, which is refreshingly unexpected, and Young matches that look in Henry's personality, offering a delicacy I'd yet to see from Young this season. Aaron Brakefield provides something similar in his role as Diana's long-suffering husband Dan, his sophisticated performance marked with a hint of despair beneath an ever-hopeful longing for the Diana he once knew. Kriss Doss makes the most of his stage time as two of Diana's psychiatrists, playing each of them with a slight, appropriate social awkwardness.
And then there's Christian Chambers, the nature of whose role requires a Spoiler Alert. (Please skip to the next paragraph if you don't want the surprise of his character revealed.) While I wanted a bit more from him physically, he vocally nails the haunting nature of his role as Gabe, Diana's mental construct of her long-dead son. Chambers' most striking moment is during his solo "There's a World," in which he adds an Oedipal touch to Gabe's efforts to lure Diana away from Dan and Natalie. As he embraces her in ways that aren't quite romantic, but definitely beyond those appropriate to a mother and son, the disturbing nature of Gabe's imagined presence in Diana's life is abundantly clear.
Also impressive about Teague's production is the way designer James Kyle Davis uses his lighting schemes to reveal the characters' mental states. This is most apparent during Natalie's "Everything Else" scene in which she attests to the power of piano performance as a way to make the pain of life disappear. Davis' heavy use of shadows makes everything but Natalie disappear on stage, an effect that becomes clearest when Henry interrupts her, returning Natalie, and the lighting, to reality.
Next to Normal is heavy on strong language and drug use, but if you're inherently offended by such things, they're worth looking past here. Not only is this an important piece of theatre with something to teach, but the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production is one that drives its lessons right to the heart.
Next to Normal runs at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre through August 16, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)242-6760 or visiting ClintonShowboat.org.