The Arden Theatre Company has long explored stories that address the typical challenges facing many American families, and at first, it appears that the suburban Goodman family in Brian Yorkey’s and Tom Kitt’s provocative 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal is as recognizable as the figures in a Norman Rockwell painting. There’s Diana (played by a bold yet tempered Kristine Fraelich); her husband Dan (the sensitive James Barry) and their teenage daughter Natalie (Rachel Camp). The couple also have a son named Gabe (Robert Hager, in a dominating performance). “They’re the perfect loving family/And I love them every day of the week,” Diana sings in “Just Another Day,” Next to Normal’s opening number. “So my son’s a little shit, my husband’s boring/And my daughter, though a genius, is a freak/Still I help them love each other/Father mother sister brother/Cheek to cheek.”
This moment of domestic bliss is interrupted when she begins to make the family’s lunch, which isn’t unusual, except she’s making the sandwiches on the floor. Dan’s and Natalie’s reactions suggest they’ve seen this kind of bizarre behavior before. Diana is bipolar, and as Natalie rushes off to school, Dan makes plans for his wife to visit a new doctor.
When Normal debuted on Broadway, many critics hailed it as a groundbreaking work. It’s not, at least not in terms of its construction. The contemporary score—which draws on pop, rock and Broadway-style ballads—is heavily influenced by composer Stephen Sondheim, and the astute book is conventionally episodic and character-driven. From an artistic standpoint, Normal is not nearly as innovative as Caroline, or Change, a musical that truly was revelatory in its design. So, what does Normal do to earn all the critical accolades? The answer lies in its approach to mental illness. In an artistic medium in which no topic is taboo, Kitt and Yorkey dare to challenge people’s long-held beliefs about a subject that’s still discussed in hushed tones.
It would be easy for a production to focus solely on Diana and her disease, but director Terrence J. Nolen is equally interested in the impact her behavior has on the entire family. Given little attention at home, Natalie seeks refuge in her love for the piano, which she practices at school with the sort of regularity other teens reserve for drug use. It is there that she meets Henry (the marvelous Michael Doherty), who, despite his fondness for pot, is by far the production’s most well-adjusted character. As Natalie’s and Henry’s relationship grows into a surprisingly healthy romance, Diana is prodded by Dan to begin a treatment combining talk therapy and medication with a prominent psychopharmacologist (Arden veteran Brian Hissong). Described by Dan as a “rock star” in the field, he shares two important characteristics with Diane’s husband: Both are well-meaning, and both are clueless about Diane’s condition. Dan’s ignorance is forgivable; the doctor’s is alarming.
Diana’s treatment sessions are among the most chilling scenes in Normal, made all the more frightening by Jorge Cousineau’s effective video design, which emphasizes the hubris of modern medicine. As Diana begins her treatment, pills of all shapes and colors dance on the giant screen in a sort of a pharmacological tango. Despite the array of meds she’s prescribed, Diana shows little improvement, and at her husband’s and doctor’s urging, she undergoes the barbaric treatment known as electroshock therapy. As scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest flash, we’re reminded of how little understood mental illnesses were back in the day. The ECT treatment leaves Diana little more than a walking corpse. “I don’t feel like myself. I don’t feel anything,” she tells the doctor, whose only response is to make a note that the “patient is stable.”
It is this callous notation that strikes at the heart of Kitt’s and Yorkey’s musical tragedy. In a nation where mental disorders are still stigmatized and a subject of shame, Diana has a condition in which the cure is potentially worse than the disease’s symptoms. Diana’s left with almost no memory or identity, and she loses something else too, and it’s fair to say that it is both priceless and irreplaceable.
Next to Normal gives voice to the millions of Americans who live with an ailment that, for some, is as much a blessing as a curse. The show’s most memorable song, “I Miss the Mountains,” sums up the dilemma faced by those whose lives have been profoundly impacted by this mysterious and misunderstood disorder: “I miss the highs and lows/All the climbing, all the falling/All the while the wild wind blows/Stinging you with snow and soaking you with rain/I miss the mountains, I miss the pain/Everything is balanced here and on an even keel/Everything is perfect/Nothing’s real.”
Through Nov. 4. $36-$48. F. Otto Haas Stage, Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. ardentheatre.org