The Acting Loft is known for challenging its audiences, and its latest production is no exception.
Next to Normal, which opened Friday, Feb. 17, is the story of Diana Goodman, a wife and mother who struggles with bipolar disorder, and the effect her illness has on her family. With song lyrics and spoken word by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, the rock musical delves into issues not often talked about onstage or in real life. It is one of only eight musicals ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize, and it won three Tony Awards in 2009.
“It’s one of the most brilliant pieces of theater ever written,” said artistic director Christopher Courage. “It gives us as performers what is essentially a non-musical set to music; there is virtually no spoken dialogue. It’s incredibly emotional [and] brings up all these issues that people are ashamed to talk about.”
The nature of the production called for a different kind of approach, Courage said. The small cast and crew found themselves constantly discussing their characters and the pain they were feeling, and reflecting on mental illness’ ability to “wreck an entire family,” Courage said.
“In the 23 years I’ve been [at the Acting Loft], we’ve never tackled a show this dense and that has this much to say to people,” Courage said. “Our whole program is about education and inviting the audience to experience something that they may not experience again.
“As I approached the production, I didn’t feel at first that the material resonated with me, but I realized [that] every person you know knows someone or has some kind of connection with mental disease,” he said. “This show changed my attitude [about mental illness] and made me and the cast members more sympathetic.”
Actor Nathan Barnes, who is open about his own past struggles with depression, agrees. He said his hope for the show is to shed some light on the fact that there are people suffering from mental disorders, many of whom he said “go undiagnosed or incorrectly diagnosed for years” and thus suffer unnecessarily. Barnes plays two different doctors in the show.
“It’s so much more of a difficult journey [when you are] walking around with voices in your head all day long,” Barnes said. “It’s very distracting and disconcerting. This character and this family — all they want is to be normal or as normal as they can possibly be. I think that’s all any of us want.”
Barnes, who describes the production as a wonderful character study, shared what is a particularly poignant moment in the show for him: “The doctor asks Diana, ‘How are you feeling?’ And she says, ‘I feel absolutely nothing.’ And the doctor says, ‘Hmm, patient stable.’ She wants to feel something. With all of the emotions and delusions [she faces], at same time she feels flat and blank and empty.”
Jennifer Sue Mallard, who plays Diana’s teenage daughter, describes her character, Natalie, as feeling invisible, frustrated and rebellious at times throughout the show. “She tends to get put on the back burner,” Mallard said.
Mallard said it was difficult to tap into the raw emotions and frustrations of a 16-year-old: “At 16, Natalie doesn’t quite understand what is going on, and her instinct is to get angry.”
Joel Iwaskiewicz’s character, Diana’s son, Gabe, depicts yet another complicated relationship and side of the production. Iwaskiewicz saw Next to Normal on its national tour twice last year and said he couldn’t remember the last time he was so affected by a piece of theater. He said he couldn’t believe his good luck when he discovered the show was going to be performed in New Hampshire.
Though Iwaskiewicz was willing to play any part in the show, he said it’s been a thrill playing Gabe. “A lot of the characters are dealing with the heaviness of their circumstances,” he said. “Gabe’s vitality challenges the emotional tone of the show. I was drawn to the energy of his character.”