Seeking the comforts of normality | Sunday Observer

Seeking the comforts of normality

4 December, 2016

A review of the play Next to Normal 

The Senanayake sisters, - Anushka and Natasha, proved how well their synergizing of talents result in delivering a captivating work of theatre with the latest creative venture, by Theatre Junction, Next to Normal, which enjoyed a three day show at the Wendt. An award winning, ‘rock musical’ stage play, its story and lyrics are by Brian Yorkey and music written by Tom Kitt.

The production by Theatre Junction was directed by Anushka Senanayake with music direction by Natasha Senanayake, and featured a talented cast. Occupying seat Q-7 under the gentle darkness, yours truly watched on the opening night of 29 September, a musical sung to the audience through ‘amplification’. Every player on stage had a clip-on microphone through which their voices were broadcast through the sound system. Thus, the feel of almost a rock musical show at times did vibrate, as the scenes unfolded a theatrical story that was sung through with limited ‘normal’ dialogue.

When a homemaker wife cum mother spreads bread on the floor to make sandwiches for her family, does that signal a mental breakdown? As the play got under way from that point, unfolding a story about mental disorder, suicide, dependency on high powered prescription drugs, the breakdown of a household harmony, I couldn’t help but recall the predicament of the character of Matt Durning, on Beverly Hills 90210 whose wife Lauren was schizophrenic and institutionalized at a mental health facility, due to her condition being unfit for household life. She was brought to ‘normalcy’ at one point through certain medication, only to soon discover its fatal side effects if continued, which compelled her to discontinue the drugs in the hope of benefiting from a safer future cure.

Next to Normal revolves around the misfortune suffered by the Goodman family when Diane is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, bordering schizophrenia. The principal trauma it appears, that causes the mental imbalance is the death of their son Gabriel, who died in childhood, which had been a subconscious wound that was festering, and not healed over time. Through the character of Diane, and her manifestation of her son Gabriel, the story speaks of the bond between a mother and a child that may have a life beyond the physical existence and something of a metaphysical dimension that cannot be extinguished easily. And, when the remedial measures to make Diane forget the child she lost unfold as the story progresses, the ‘politics of memory’ as individual and collective, and its basis for individual identity come into play. The play thus shows, how ‘memory’ can be viewed as a ‘construction’, and subject to manipulation.

The Goodman household brings out clearly how mental illness claims primary and secondary victims. And love, as familial love and also between spouses is crucial for a family to brave through the grimness towards light. Diane’s husband Dan, sings out at one point, “They say love is blind, love is insane.” And that to me seemed the ironic rationale that keeps the husband’s resolve to see his family ‘recover’. I was appalled over how some viewers laughed that evening when the psychiatrist, seeing how stressed Dan was, asked the emotionally and psychologically embattled husband if he would like a doctor recommended for himself. I assure you dear reader, there was nothing comedic in the way that bit was acted out by the players. The thin, yet, noticeably audible laughter that arose from some places in the audience at that point, evinces there is a certain attitudinal immaturity among many here, in grasping the severity of mental illness, the suffering it causes, and the practical need for therapy.

Next to Normal doesn’t have an ‘all’s well’ finale, but ends portending hope for the Goodman family and doesn’t leave the viewers in the grips of a tragedy enveloped in abysmal darkness. The play explores among other things, through the framework of theatre craft how a character’s subconsciousness can be given voice(s) and demarcate stage space for the manifestation of the psychological facets of a character.

The lighting factor played a pivotal role in delivering the effects of demarcating the psychological space from the material plane in this performance narrative, and must be commended. Stagecraft was designed to depict structural functioning within a two storey house but not of the strict realist theatre mode. To the credit of the players it must be noted that not the slightest sign of opening night jitters was detectable throughout the performance. Theatre Junction deserves robust applause for its production of a contemporary American stage play with a striking storyline.