American theater has thrived on stories about “my crazy family.” Everyone from Tennessee Williams to Neil Simon to last year’s Tony Award winner, Tracy Letts, in his epic “August: Osage County,” has presented domestic dysfunction with tragic or comic overtones, and sometimes both. But aside from alcoholics and drug addicts, none has featured a certifiably “sick” family member and then dared to write a musical about him or her. Two years ago an off-Broadway production of Next to Normal, by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, broke through that barrier with the story of a woman afflicted with bipolar disorder and the effect her illness has on herself, her husband and her daughter. The current Broadway production has received enthusiastic reviews, numerous awards and nightly standing ovations. It will undoubtedly appear in the repertoire of regional theaters throughout the country in the next few years.
The play’s setting suggests several rooms of a family residence, reminiscent of the multi-room sets of “Death of a Salesman” and other domestic dramas of the 1950s, in which the home comes across as a prison of the human spirit. Here the home’s walls are metallic grids resembling cages, and even though the play’s action rapidly moves to other locations—the therapist’s office, the operating room and the musical practice room where Bach serves as an oasis of order for Diana’s daughter, Natalie—everyone, including the doctors, seems trapped.
The emotional core of the play is the suffering of Diana, the psychologically wounded wife and mother. Traumatized by a family tragedy, Diana has been leading a medicated life for almost 20 years. She decides to discontinue her medications and the emotional numbness they have created for her. This leads to bizarre behavior, hallucinatory experiences, electroshock therapy, memory loss and other crises for Diana and her family. It also forces them to re-evaluate their coping mechanisms and patterns of denial and avoidance. (Alice Ripley’s musical and dramatic performance as Diana was honored with the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.)
The musical’s conclusion is bittersweet and brave, but honestly earned. As one of Diana’s therapists says of a new treatment, “I know it’s not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got.” “Next to Normal” applies that comment to the entire human predicament and the challenges all must face, with or without the support of family or pharmaceuticals.