Bipolar disorder isn’t usually something to sing about.
Nevertheless, the student actors featured in Augustana Performing and Visual Arts’ production of Next to Normal do just that in an effort to portray one family’s struggle to cope with mental illness.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt details the lives of Diana Goodman and her family members as they deal with Diana’s diagnosis. The six-person cast, directed by theatre instructor Jayna Fitzsimmons, seeks to sensitively tell the family’s story without shying away from the script’s more controversial material.
“[Next to Normal] tackles these issues with a real delicacy, but it also faces the realities about things like addiction and drug use and how these can all affect people who are just trying to live their lives,” senior Scot Missling (Dan Goodman) said. “It’s a show to make people think.”
Stage manager Lindsay Bleile agrees that the production tackles “very real occurrences in people’s lives.”
“It deals with mental health issues and a family trying to cope with those issues, trying to be ‘normal.’ Or next to normal,” she said.
Next to Normal’s seven characters certainly do have their share of real-world woes; their individual battles throughout the show include addictions, struggles with grief, psychiatric problems and crumbling relationships.
“This show, in my opinion, has conflict that is relevant to the audience,” freshman Joshua Hedeby (Gabe Goodman) said. “The struggles that the characters go through are so much more relatable than the conflicts in Grease or The Sound of Music.”
According to members of the cast and crew, despite Next to Normal’s darker tone in contrast with most of Augustana’s previous musicals, the serious subject matter has only enhanced the creative process.
“It’s an amazing experience to have to confront these issues that most [people] would like to sweep under the rug,” Bleile said. “You find out a lot about yourself and others. We are not all perfect.”
The cast has been rehearsing since the beginning of interim, and according to Missling, they are prepared to deliver “great theatre.”
“To have a cast of six is a really great opportunity because we get a lot of time to live together, essentially,” he said. “We bond on a different level, and I think that’s something that’ll come through in the show, just how close of a cast we are.”
Hedeby finds himself in agreement.
“My cast mates have been working so incredibly hard on this show, and it is truly paying off,” he said. “Every single one of them has such amazing talent, and it would be a shame to miss them perform.”
Next to Normal might not be the feel-good show of the year, but its cast and crewmembers hope the audience will be moved by the show’s powerful message regarding modern normalcy – or the lack of it.
“People will leave this show with an understanding that none of us are what we think the definition of ‘normal’ is,” Bleile said. “It’s a show that will give you a greater appreciation of what family is and how a family copes and deals with trying to be just that: a family.”
Augustana’s production of Next to Normal debuts Wednesday, February 26 in the Edith Mortensen Center, and runs through Sunday, March 2. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. from Wednesday through Saturday. Sunday’s performance will be a 2:30 p.m. matinee. Next to Normal is intended for mature audiences.