A Musical On Mental Illness So Powerful You Can ‘Ask The Doc’ After

 

A scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Next to Normal, running March 9 – April 15 at the Boston Center for the Arts. (Saglio Photography Inc.)

Diana seems at first like merely a classic harried mother who happens to be staying up all night. She’s worrying as she waits for her teenaged son to come home; then fretting that her brilliant daughter is up at 4 with a can of Red Bull to finish her schoolwork; then having quickie sex with her husband. She sings about keeping the plates all spinning and holding the house together as she starts to make her family’s bag lunches for the dawning day.

It is only when Diana starts making sandwich after sandwich after sandwich, laying the bread out rapidfire not just on the table but unstoppably along the floor, that we in the audience realize this is not just a garden-variety harried mother. This is a woman in the midst of a full-blown manic episode rapidly spinning — like the plates — out of control.

So begins “Next To Normal,” a pop-rock musical about a family living with mental illness that has won three Tony awards and the Pulitzer for drama — and that premieres in Boston beginning this Friday, put on by the Speakeasy Stage Company. Already, ticket pre-sales are setting records for the Speakeasy — and here’s my theory on why, after watching a rehearsal this weekend:

A music box brings back some painful memories for a mother and son (Kerry A. Dowling and Michael Tacconi) in a scene from Next to Normal (Saglio Photography Inc.)

It’s not just a prize-winning show. It has doubly powerful drawing power beyond sheer quality. First, if you take the tens of millions of Americans who have a diagnosable mental illness and add in their relatives and friends, you get to pretty nearly the country’s entire population potentially interested in a well-done show on the topic.

And second, the portrayal of mental illness and its treatment in “Next to Normal” is so contemporary and in many ways so realistic — yes, even in musical form — that it inevitably creates buzz that spreads far and wide, rippling outward from activist circles.

Consider:

  • A song with overtones of The Sound of Music’s “My Favorites Things” that goes: “Zoloft and Paxil and Buspar and Xanax…Depakote, Klonapin, Ambien, Prozac…Ativan calms me when I see the bills — these are a few of my favorite pills.”
  • A tango-like song about a common relationship: “My psychopharmacologist and I…Call it a lover’s game. He knows my deepest secrets — I know his…name.”
  • A devastating song about depression: “Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head? Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead? It’s like living on a cliffside not knowing when you’ll dive…Do you know, do you know what it’s like to die alive?”

Lynda Cuttrell, the acting president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says that people with mental illness and their family members tend to love the show, but its appeal is far broader.

“I think that it’s done in such a way that it attracts people outside of the community,” she said. “The community, the families who share the struggles, know each other but we don’t talk so much to outsiders, and this puts it on the stage and explains to the broader community that good people and loving people and smart people get this, too.”

On some evenings, the explaining will go on even after the show stops. NAMI has helped organize “Ask the Doctor” sessions to allow audiences to speak with experts as they digest the show.

Sarah Drake and Kerry A. Dowling reconcile in a scene from the Speakeasy Stage Company's Next to Normal (Saglio Photography Inc.)

This Saturday night, Dr. Steve Seiner, who oversees the large electroshock (more correctly known as electroconvulsive therapy) program at McLean Hospital will be on hand, and on Mar. 29, Dr. Ken Duckworth, the medical director for NAMI nationally and a former Massachusetts commissioner of mental health, will answer questions along with schizophrenia expert Dr. Deborah Levy, director of McLean’s  Psychology Research Laboratory.

It’s hard to predict what people will ask, Dr. Levy said, but she hopes to offer audience members “a reality check on what’s realistic and what’s not” in the show.

My bet is that the demand for that reality check will be high, and on one aspect in particular: It’s not giving away too much, I think, to reveal that Diana, the mother with bipolar illness and schizophrenia, undergoes electroshock treatment, and emerges better but with huge gaping holes in her memory.

Lynda Cuttrell of NAMI says that electroshock is such a “hot potato in some ways” in the mental illness community that the first “Ask the doctor” session scheduled for this Saturday with Dr. Seiner could involve some controversy.

“There are a lot of people who have a great experience and there are a few who don’t,” she said. “And they come out with lots of warnings: ‘Don’t do this,’ and ‘They’re taking your rights away.’ And it is a treatment that works successfully for a lot of people but not all. And a lot of lives have been saved with it, but not all.”

There are several other aspects of “Next to Normal” that I think may bear some after-show discussion, from the portrayal of schizophrenia (can’t say more without a spoiler alert) to Diana’s big decision at the end (ditto) and the family’s varied ways of coping.

But if Lynda Cuttrell’s experience is any indication, the overall audience reaction might be something like this: “I love this play because it shows the whole family, and it does show it realistically,” she said.

“If you were to go to a NAMI support group and listen to family members with a loved one with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder,” she said, “this is exactly what that is.”

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