At first, it seems like the family in Theatre Calgary’s musical Next To Normal is a basic nuclear family, trying to get by. Diana (Kathryn Akin) is trying to keep up with her daughter and son and husband, making sure that the household doesn’t break into pieces. Her husband Dan (Rejean Cournoyer) works in construction and they both try to support the kids, Gabe (Robert Markus) and Natalie (Sara Farb). It’s just another day, unfolding before our eyes, but then it is revealed that Diana is sick. She starts making lunches on the floor and this is just a glimpse of how her battle with mental illness is present in her life everyday.
Diana goes back to the doctor and they systematically give her treatments. ‘It isn’t the best system, but it’s what we’ve got,’ Dr. Madden (John Ullyatt) tells her. She doesn’t like the drugs though and she misses her life. Relations with her husband are getting more and more strained and she doesn’t seem to see her daughter before her. Natalie, for her part is hanging out with her new boyfriend Henry (Michael Cox) and desperately trying not to fade into the background of her family life. As the story unfolds, it becomes very clear that something has got to give. Diana can’t let go, Dan doesn’t know life without her, and Natalie is just trying to cope.
Next to Normal features live music which adds to the vocals on stage. The songs featured in the play are catchy and well written, often the lyrics depicting the turmoil of the characters. The narrative is punctuated by a refrain of ‘catch me I’m falling’ and the music intertwines within the storyline, acting as another character. One scene in particular displays this musical charm. When Diana first meets Dr. Madden she, and therefore the audience sees him as a rock star. He sings his lines and an electric guitar is featured. Later, when Diana has had electroshock therapy, she no longer sees him this way.
The play features strong voices from the cast and a great performance from Cournoyer. Ullyatt also puts forward a strong performance. Cory Sincennes’ set design is something to note. The set has an industrial feel that converts the setting to a doctor’s office, a house, a piano recital amongst many others. Water falls in the background when it’s raining outside, and in the midst of Diana’s illness, fog floods the stage. Michael Walton’s lighting design adds to the narrative, featuring romantic twinkling lights and rock star lighting when needed.
Next to Normalis full of great music and singing and features a compelling narrative. But it’s missing that punch to make it truly outstanding. The audience could feel the turmoil and the pain of dealing with mental illness on all sides, more acutely. Natalie comes off as a selfish teenager because her character isn’t explored enough to reveal how mental illness is impacting her. We understand that she feels invisible and her parents are not present because of what they are dealing with, but the only glimpse we get is when she reveals that she feels that this is the way she will end up as well. All the characters are built up in the lyrics, but fall short on the stage.
Next to Normal runs until September 30th. Tickets are available online.
(Four stars out of five)
Photo Credit: Trudie Lee Photography