|Jonathan Swartout (Gabe) and Jennifer Yamashiro (Diana)|
By Tina Arth
Occasionally, a local community theater sinks its artistic teeth into something really heavy. In this regard, Theatre in the Grove’s current production of Next to Normal sets a new standard for Washington County offerings. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer prize winning musical about a family dealing with the effects of bipolar disorder is beautiful, powerful, moving, and extremely disturbing as it draws the audience into the varying perspectives and experiences of a not quite normal suburban family. It is by no means a fun show, although there are moments of authentic humor. However, it is a show that should not be missed – no matter what your individual experience has been with mental illness, your understanding will be enriched even as you are shaken by this courageous exploration of a topic too poorly understood, even by those living in the midst of it. Director Melanie Shaw has courageously tackled one of the big ones, and she pulls it off without a hitch.
The family in question is mother Diana, whose bipolar disorder and treatments send shock waves through the lives of her husband Dan and her children, in particular 16 year-old daughter Natalie. Diana moves through every possible avenue of treatment as she changes psychiatrists while trying psychotherapy, a never-ending assortment of prescribed drugs, going cold-turkey by dumping her meds, and electro-convulsive therapy – without ever finding the magic “cocktail” that will solve her problems. As Natalie finally explains, there is no hope that the family can achieve normalcy – the most that they can hope for is that each can craft a life that is “next to normal.”
Jennifer Yamashiro is brilliantly cast as Diana. Few local actors could top her ability to capture the emotional highs and lows, the sweetness, confusion, pain, longing and fear, even without the challenge of conveying much of this through the riveting but complex rock opera score. Cast as daughter Natalie, Alison Luie is a perfect counterpart – every bit Yamashiro’s equal as a singer, and utterly convincing in the poignancy with which she responds to the family crises radiating from her mother’s illness. Sometimes invisible, sometimes all too present, Luie moves through denial, frantic overachievement, the numbing of drugs and alcohol, and ultimately a loving acceptance and understanding of the situation into which she was born.
The men who orbit around the mother-daughter nexus bring unique perspectives that enrich our grasp of the family dynamic. Luis Ventura plays Diana’s two psychiatrists, eerily capturing the calm, emotionless disconnect that typifies the therapist’s side of a bewilderingly complex relationship. Jonathan Swartout (son Gabe) is flippantly charismatic as he competes with his father and sister in a life and death tug of war for Diana’s attention. Micaiah Fifer (Natalie’s boyfriend Henry) has the challenge of finding the place for a relatively sane person in this insular and insane world; at first hard to grasp, Fifer develops his relationship with the audience with the same persistence he brings to courting Natalie. Finally, there is James Grimes as husband Dan – a character who fluctuates between forced optimism and quiet despair, unable to address his own issues because he has dedicated his life to trying to fix Diana. Grimes manages a real tour de force in the show’s final moments, lifting the curtain and showing the audience who he is at exactly the moment that his character finally confronts his emotions head on.
Much of the story is conveyed in song, and even without catching all the lyrics the intense vocals tell a powerful story. Music Director Michelle Bahr has done an amazing job - the juxtaposition of anguished solos with pounding ensemble work constantly reminds us of each character’s individual turmoil and of the effect of this turmoil on the others. The orchestra is flawless – supporting, but never overwhelming, the vocalists as they find their voices in the complex score.
Zachary Centers’ set brings visual clarity to the tale - the darkly disconnected, stark spaces connected by narrow and perilous staircases clearly illustrate the strange and frightening places in Diana’s mind. Anne Kennedy, Ward Ramsdell, and Heather Sutherland’s lighting design also plays a key role, switching from light to dark, cheerful to terrifying, in sync with the script.
In her director’s notes, Melanie Shaw quotes the New York Times reviewer who says that the show is “much more than a feel-good musical; it is a feel-everything musical.” This captures the spirit of the tale, and the reasons why the production is a must-see, better than any words I can craft.
Due to strong language and thematic intensity, the show is not appropriate for younger audiences. Borrowing from the film world, I would rate it PG-13, but to some it might be more like NC-17.
Next to Normal is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through January 29, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.