It’s heartwrenching. Never doubt: it’s heartwrenching. No show I have seen in my two years at Stanford heaves with as much aesthetically mobilized darkness as Ram’s Head and the Stanford Theatre Lab’s production of Next to Normal, which opened on Thursday at the Elliot Programing Center.
Make no mistake – Next to Normal dances on the cusp of insanity. So, how do we ground ourselves in sane terms – terms on which to explain a theatrical piece that tells the story of a suburban mother’s reckoning with bipolar disorder? The very narrative of the show prohibits this; instead, it invites us to check our realist biases at the door – no, scratch that, it snatches them out of our hands and checks them for us.
Next to Normal’s power arises from its language – words matter in this musical. They oscillate tirelessly between speech and music with an unparalleled ease, reminiscent of the blurred lines between the objective reality and the world Diana Goodman experiences. However, these words, whether sung or spoken, are not answers. They are questions – about love and misery, solace and family, yearning and loss, illness and healing, death and joy.
This production showcases some of Stanford’s best actors, both new and familiar. Megan Gage’s (’15) portrayal of Diana’s breakdown is a veritable breakthrough. Dressed to the nines in flawless outfits, she flails across the stage in sublimated aggression, punctuating the show’s marriage of beauty to instability. Moreover, one can only describe Robert Poole’s (’15) performance as unreal – for a million reasons. In a production that mildly favors quality acting over quality singing, he impresses himself upon the audience as having a firm command over both. As Diana’s son, he asserts a chill-inducing, mind-haunting presence, while at the same time remaining eminently likeable – a pure youth lost to the absurdity of modern life.
In a forty-second musical segment, Dan Goodman –played effortlessly by Brady Richter (’15)– utters one of the show’s listless, tragicomic asides: “I couldn’t give a flying fuck what’s normal; we haven’t had a normal day in years.” Director Allison Gold (’15) and set designer Keenan Molner (’15) appear to have taken this guideline to heart. The production is nothing short of visionary. It showcases the talent of a director who truly understands the show’s characters and the ingenuity of a creative leader that impels emotions out of actors and compels them back within. I foresee a special future for Gold; perhaps even in theatre productions where she will be able to afford non-nappy, lacefront wigs for her actors. I bring this up because what we see here is talent that deserves to have money thrown at it in buckets.
As we continue to realize with Stanford theatre, innovation can (but does not always) arise out of austerity. This is a college production, but the set looks professional. There is a clear nod to the set from the Broadway production, a cross-section of a house made of multiple daises, seared into the mind of all theatre junkies. For reasons I am sure are solid and various, this production abandons that construct for simpler elevated platforms, allowing the characters to move freely, while maintaining a degree of spatial separation from other parts of the stage when the dialogue demands it.
In a feat that is as eerie as it is wistful, this production of Next to Normal prods the soul and invites us to have an honest conversation about the frailness of the psyche – a conversation that, as we learn, cannot be had too often. We are reminded that none of us are normal, yet there might just be a productive way to begin dancing on the cusp of insanity. So we listen; we take off our glasses; and, lips dry, hair messy, hearts beating, step onto the dance floor.