The funny thing about bipolar depression, which “Next to Normal” makes very clear early in Act I, is that it’s rarely the isolated, lugubrious opposite of happiness. Life is just too messy for that. Directed by Ralph Hyman and starring Micah Qualls as Diane, an overburdened mother (a redundant pairing of words if there ever was one) battling mental illness, The Weekend Theater’s run of the 2008 Tom Kitt musical explores how joyful moments can occur just before or even during our downfalls, and how deep tragedies can lead to breakthroughs in personal fulfillment.
The first of many great moments in “Next to Normal” is the tango-influenced “Who’s Crazy/ My Psychopharmacologist and I.” Mixing in elements of the classic “My Favorite Things,” “My Psychopharmacologist and I” finds Qualls chirpily listing Diane’s bipolar medications to the audience — “Valium is my favorite color!” — not only establishing a “You’d probably go crazy, too” connection with the crowd, but also highlighting Qualls’ robust vocals and crisp comedic timing. Within minutes, she has the audience in the palm of her hand as she flirts, purrs and parries around the psychobabble staccato of Diane’s laundry list of uppers, downers, antidepressants and mood stabilizers.
It’s funny, weird as hell and sets the stage for the darker, more introspective scenes in Act II. Through Qualls, we see Diane desperately trying to remain stable and tethered to her family, enduring prescriptions, psychotherapy, electroshock treatment, delusions, hospitalizations — all while still grasping for the brilliant, unhinged, high-spirited woman she is without medication. But her demands as wife and mother mean she can’t have it both ways, leaving her swaying on a mental health tightrope and craving escape from her mundane, medicated life. “Most people who are happy are actually just stupid,” she opines.
Surrounding Qualls is a strong supporting cast able to handle the show’s many shifts between drama and comedy. Especially impressive are Grace Allard and Justin Holznecht as Diane’s children, bringing disciplined performances to heavy moments which, in less capable hands and voices, could have fallen into hammy melodrama. Allard is wonderfully crass as the snarky, perfectionist daughter Natalie, and Holzknecht delivers each line as Gabe with remarkable vigor, talent and clarity. He sings like a Disney prince.
As Diane and her family strive for something “next to” stability, the audience is rewarded with a complex, character-driven journey that’s charismatic, at times absurd and emotionally raw. “Next to Normal” is not only more than worthy as a weekend diversion, it fits perfectly with The Weekend Theater’s credo of conscious, enlightening community theater. It’s hilarious, entertaining and simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.