Most of us avoid blending the burdens of our intimate lives with the public personas we maintain. How do we reconcile the reality of our experiences with our perceptions of how things are supposed to be? Next to Normal, Flowertown's newest show — written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey — reinforces the saying "everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about" by giving us a glimpse into a seemingly normal family living with the dark reality of mental illness and recovery from trauma.
Next to Normal challenges preconceived notions about mental illness, makes it clear that things are not always as they seem, and advocates for open discussion on topics too often stigmatized. "It's saying that this could be anyone, which goes back to the typical suburban family," says director Erik Brower. "It could be anyone. It could be the person who might on the surface seem like nothing is wrong but who's really hurting behind closed doors." We all have been, directly or indirectly, affected by mental illness, so is the abnormal much more "normal" than we've been acknowledging?
Next to Normal is a glimpse into the life of the Goodman family where the mother, Diana, suffers from bipolar disorder following a tragic incident that occurred in her life 16 years earlier. But Diana isn't necessarily Next to Normal's central character. The play focuses heavily on Dan, her husband, and the psychological tug-of-war he feels as he juggles his roles as an emotional caregiver, husband, and father. Their daughter, Natalie, copes with the chaos through sarcasm and detachment, while their son, Gabe, plays a uniquely challenging role in Diana's attempts for recovery. Brower says the principal theme of the performance is "coping with loss and trying to move on and rebuild strength in a relationship as opposed to deteriorating."
Each family member is desperate for "normalcy," or at least something as close to the concept as possible, with no understanding of how to achieve it. Brower surmises that Dan is the most relatable character in the ethical complexity of his dilemma. He grapples with denial as evident by his song "It's Gonna Be Good" where he insists that "normalcy" can return, even though he knows it likely won't. Diana no longer can relate to the idea of normal Dan longs for, and these misunderstandings create distance.
It may seem surprising that a play with such a weighty subject would be presented as a rock musical. Next to Normal challenges stereotypical assumptions about musicals and exemplifies how rock music, an especially conflicted genre, can be the best-suited medium for a play about mental health. "We often think of musicals as having surface-level ideas and very one-dimensional depictions of people," says Courtney Bates, executive director of Flowertown Players. "This show is absolutely breaking the bounds of that perception."
A musical could be just the perfect platform for a story where we see both the external conflict between relationships as well as the intensity with which the characters struggle with themselves. "This is probably the most well-written show I've worked on," says Brower. "The dialogue and the language these characters use is so realistic. There's no corny musical theater in this show. All six of these characters, they're all real, three-dimensional people. That's been a blessing for us to be able to really plug into these characters."
The Flowertown team has crafted a minimalistic setting for the performance to amplify the depth of the characters; the focus is on the humanity of the family without distraction. "It almost has a dream-like quality. One scene almost blends into the next," says Brower. In his thoughtful direction, he avoided watching other versions of the show in order to bring authenticity to the performance. What the audience sees is an organic creation that maintains the original script. Jeremy Frutkin, Flowertown's artistic director, feels the show insists on multiple viewings: "The description Erik used that I love is 'Easter eggs.' The more you watch this show, the more you see little clues. You discover something new every time. A pretty rare thing, especially for a contemporary musical."
The themes in Next to Normal are welcome in a time when mental health has become a daily conversation. Our personal experiences often feel more authentic than the generalized narratives we see in the media. "The way it's portrayed isn't always accurate or sensitive. There are a lot of inappropriate labels being applied to people who struggle with that, and I think this show could do really great things for the community," says Bates. This performance was chosen for Flowertown by a committee of board members and locals — and Bates was rooting for the musical because of its relevance. "This show does a great job of saying that no one is alone. There are always building blocks for a supportive community around you."
This show is sponsored in part by Palmetto Behavioral Health who will be in attendance at each show and provide specialists for talkbacks.