Review: Next to Normal

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

I love going to the theater. There is something about attending a live performance that is stirring and exciting. It is an experience I always look forward to.

Once in a great while, there is a performance that touches my soul. It stays with me and even transforms me – changing the way I look at the world. Next to Normal was that kind of experience.

It was not a show to sit and watch. Rather, each audience member was called to witness the agony of each family member as they struggled with their situation.

Melissa Shepherd played Diane, the mother who sank into mental illness and hallucinations following the death of her son. Her daily battle to cope with life and her unsuccessful efforts to separate the real from the unreal tore her apart as she tried one treatment after another.

Shepherd captured each agonizing turn with her face, leaving none to wonder about the extent of her torment nor her struggle to function in the real world.

Jeremy Moon, as Dan, the father, strove to keep a façade of normalcy for his family and the world. He, too, conveyed the stress and his struggle to keep from breaking while trying to decide on the right treatments for his wife as he pursued the vain hope that she might someday recover, once again becoming the woman he married.

If adults have difficulty coping with the reality of mental illness, how much more so a teenage girl. Lauren McCombs’ portrayal of Natalie, the daughter, was right on. Shame, embarrassment, anger, hatred, love all mixed up together with a desire to run away and become someone else, to be somewhere else – anything to be rid of the pain.

The rest of the cast – Robby Lewis as Gabe, the specter of the lost son; Mitch Donhue as Henry, the boyfriend; and Mike Fryman as the doctors – all delivered credible performances.

Next to Normal is one play I’m glad I saw and CenterStage did a superb job with exceedingly difficult material. But it is also a play that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see again. More than two weeks have passed since I saw it, and there are still scenes that haunt me and mix with some personal memories.
Kudos to John Leffert for tackling such emotionally challenging material.

As part of their ongoing effort to raise awareness of the issues their productions raise, the CenterStage company also raises funds for agencies that address those issues. Following each performance of Next to Normal, members of the company collected donations for Bridgehaven, Jewish Family & Career Services, Wellspring, Seven Counties Services, Brooklawn Child & Family Services and NAMI Louisville.

CenterStage’s next show, Ragtime, will run October 25-November 11.

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