Theater

Mental Illness Stands Tall in ‘Next to Normal’

Courtesy of Amy Boyle PhotographyColette Todd and Gilbert Domally in Next to Normal.

“I don’t need a life that’s normal, that’s way too far away. But something next to normal, that would be okay.”

These lyrics, from the rock opera “Next to Normal” by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, perfectly sum up the Goodman family’s painstaking and exhausting journey while coping with wife and mother Diana’s mental illness.

The musical is currently showing at Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont Ave.), an intimate space that will make you feel as if you’re watching the deteriorating family from a corner of their living room.

Diana (Colette Todd) is the fragile mother who fights to live a normal life not only for herself, but also for her husband, Dan (Donterrio Johnson), and daughter, Natalie (Ciera Dawn). Diana’s son, Gabe (Gilbert Domally), died 16 years ago, and the trauma of his passing causes Diana to have hallucinations of him.

Diana visits two different physicians, both who are played by Peter Robel. One prescribes her an overwhelming number of medications that leave her feeling nothing at all. Todd’s soaring and emotive vocals are showcased during the song “I Miss the Mountains,” in which Diana describes her desire to feel again. With Gabe’s encouragement, Diana secretly disposes of her medication.

When a hallucination of Gabe prompts Diana to attempt suicide so that she can be with him, she is administered Electroconvulsive Therapy treatments to help alleviate the symptoms of her mental illness. While Diana’s mind is slowly deteriorates, daughter Natalie turns to drinking and drugs because she feels invisible and mentally unstable in her own way.

Johnson plays husband and father Dan Goodman, who tirelessly works to put on a calm and optimistic façade for his wife and daughter, while he struggles not to fall apart. Johnson brings incredible honesty and selflessness to his character, who remains relentlessly hopeful for a better tomorrow for his wife and family.

The hidden five-piece orchestra perfectly backs the six actors, whose controlled and powerhouse voices are demonstrated individually throughout the show. The true chilling moments came during the group numbers, including the tight and dissonant harmonies in “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling.” If you closed your eyes during the resolute closing number, “Light,” you would struggle to believe there were only six voices on the stage.

One of the striking technical elements is Sarah Ross’ scenic design. The minimalist set features hardly any furniture, props or decorations. There are a few windows, but they reveal no light; they just lead to continued emptiness and darkness. It’s a clean, barren and sterile space — a reflection of Diana’s medically balanced mind. The only real moments of color appear in G. Max Maxin’s tactfully placed lighting design. During moments of Diana’s mental hallucinations and relapses, the stage lights up in calming blue, infuriating red or a dizzying rainbow of crazed colors.

There were more than a few sets of puffy eyes exiting the theatre after the performance. “Next to Normal” will make you laugh, tug at your heart, and leave you speechless at times, numb. More importantly, the lyrics and story will leave you with an empathetic outlook on the struggles of others. Maybe we can all take something from the Goodman family: In life, there’s no real “normal.” When we start to accept that, we may begin finding comfort in our own occasionally chaotic lives, too.

“Next to Normal” runs now through Oct. 9 at Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont Ave.). Tickets are $27-$30 and are available at www.BoHoTheatre.com or (773) 975-8150.

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