Diana manically tosses sliced breads around the kitchen, including the floor, and still-in-the-package Kraft singles. The calendar is still set on April, which passed many moons ago.
“Everything is fine,” she says, convincing no one, let alone herself. “I’m just making sandwiches. And I think the house is spinning.”
Courtney Lowe convincingly and empathically brought Diana, a mother who lives with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, to life in High Point Community Theatre’s rendition of Tony award-winning musical Next to Normal at the High Point Theatre on Feb. 22.
She faces the deafening guilt of failed motherhood, of being unable to achieve what American society teaches is the pinnacle achievement of womanhood: to give birth and raise children. Those dozens of sandwiches represent her overcompensation for the shame she carries, forever attempting to correct course. Her husband Dan, portrayed by Brian Kilpatrick, sympathizes to the extent he can but wonders if he is the “crazy one” for hanging onto a marriage with a woman he feels is vastly different from the wild and free Diana he proposed to at age 22, 18 years ago.
The thing is, she is still that Diana, but the version who is in a lifelong process of healing from trauma. While Dan feels twinges of resentment and loss, Diana, too, mourns the loss of past selves, often feeling isolated from reality and, therefore, her loved ones.
Unlike 16-year-old Natalie’s experience of her home life, the musical doesn’t merely center her mother. Rebecca Evans brings emotional and psychological depth to the Natalie character, who rotates between three colors of high-top Converse, glasses and a lot of plaid. The most significant thing she wears, though, is a black backpack with a highlighter-bright Mickey Mouse face print; it’s always bursting at the seams. Natalie is graduating early with a full ride to Yale, perhaps partly the product of finding refuge by immersing herself in academics, a subconscious attempt to overcompensate for the instability of her home life due to her mother’s distressing and ongoing illness. The backpack is also a material symbol of Natalie’s emotional “baggage,” and the burdens of feeling unseen at home, thereby unwanted and unworthy in the world.
She finds a confidant (and romantic partner) in Henry, though, who is portrayed by Caleb Jackson. Their relationship, like all of Natalie’s relationships, is turbulent as he becomes a disrupting force for her entrenched patterns, particularly pushing away anyone who begins to earn emotional intimacy for fear of abandonment.
Next to Normal succeeds in providing a medically accurate portrayal of a highly stigmatized, chronic illness, and the ways it interacts with the unique pressures of womanhood (or at least middle-class, white womanhood). She experiences euphoria, racing thoughts, hypersexuality and hallucinations during manic episodes, emotional vacancy, catatonia and hopelessness when depressed. It’s a song and dance even those most intimately familiar with struggle to navigate, let along wish to try.[pullquote]Learn more at hpct.net.[/pullquote]
“I miss the mountains; I miss the pain!” Diana sings before tossing an incredible medley of pills in the trash.
Audiences come along for the rollercoaster ride that is Diana’s journey through treatments between armies of pills, hypnotherapists and — eventually — electroshock therapy. Wilson Mericle, who plays both Diana’s psycho-pharmacologist and hypnotherapist, finds balance between clinical detachment from his patient and really trying his best in spite of how crude many treatment options for mental illness remain. We’ve all seen the commercials: nausea, headaches, weight gain, vomiting, diarrhea, suicidal ideation and on and on.
In response to these unsettling realities, the full cast sings a song to the melody of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, swapping “things” with “pills” to a humorous effect. At one point, Diana says her favorite color is Valium. Next to Normal reminds us that though mental illness can engender tremendous pain, it’s okay to laugh about its absurdities. This is why we have comedy — to cope with tragedy.
That said, one of the greatest accomplishments of this musical is allowing Diana’s character to resist the narrative: that people — especially women — living with mental illness are weak or incapable of making the best decisions for their own health. Oftentimes, she truly needs someone to step in, but Diana asserts agency over her body and mind throughout the play, which is crucially important even though she doesn’t always get her way and it doesn’t always go well.
The performance clocked in at nearly three hours, a little long for most audiences. But Thursday’s crowd listened attentively, and a few attendees shed tears. Though we are not Diana or Dan or Natalie, we can see ourselves somewhere in these characters, in the way that they struggle to live up to their promises to each other and foster trusting relationships. We, too, are still mending our relationships both with others and ourselves, still transforming hour by hour, day by day.