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“Next to Normal” grapples with mental illness, grief

Sock & Buskin musical offers moving performances, showcases complex relationships

“Next to Normal,” running Nov 1-11 at the Stuart Theater, features a raw and moving story delivered by outstanding student actors. Sock and Buskin’s latest show revolves around Diana Goodman, a woman who struggles with bipolar disorder and grief. The curtain opens on her, and audience members are immediately aware of the intricacies of her relationships with her family: supportive husband Dan, overachieving daughter Natalie and manipulative son Gabe. As the musical progresses, the audience quickly realizes that Diana’s relationship with her supposedly 18-year-old son Gabe is actually a mirage — her son died when he was an infant. Throughout the play, as Diana tries to confront her own grief, her family is forced to come to terms with the problems that afflict their own lives.

The musical, directed by Addie Gorlin GS, a graduate student from the Trinity/Brown program, provided excellent performances that moved the audience, prompting tears and a standing ovation at the end of the show. Temma Schaechter ’21 and Jimmy Damore ’19.5 played Diana and Dan, respectively, and were especially exceptional performances. Kayla Kirk ’19 as Natalie impressed with a convincing interpretation of a teenager grappling with her romantic life, mental health and family relationships. Schaechter portrayed Diana with nuance, supported by her incredible voice. Dan’s kind frustration with his wife’s illness was always evident in Damore’s performance.

The music — like the story — is powerful and uninhibited. The characters explain themselves without affectation or farce, and quick changes in perspective or emotion are matched by sudden shifts in the music, often without interludes. The soundtrack does not fade from one song to the next, and these abrupt transitions create an auditory link between the sincerity of the charactrs and the tumult of the score.

The set design is inspired, versatile and adds to the show both symbolically and emotionally. The white two-story house made of almost transparent material allowed the lighting to determine the tone of the stage. When emotions run high, the entire set is enveloped in red or purple light, and the transparency of the walls gives the audience glimpses into secret actions of characters. Built as a circular platform, the set periodically moves to signal shifts in temporality in the play. Several times during the show, the set rotates continuously during a song to highlight passion or confusion as some characters stand on the stable part of the stage while others are caught up in the spiraling circle.

On Friday evening after the performance, Leon J. Hilton, assistant professor of theatre arts and performance studies, facilitated a discussion with Rendueles Villalba, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Alpert Medical School, and Linda Welsh, a psychologist at counseling and psychological services.  The discussion focused on the depiction of mental illness in the show and in theater generally. Villalba and Welsh clarified some aspects of the show, explaining subtleties of bipolar disorder and grief. Villalba appreciated the three-dimensional perspective of the lead character. He had previously worried that she might end up being  portrayed as a “caricature of the (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders),” he said. Both Villalba and Welsh noted the ways that theater can allow for the destigmatization of topics generally considered difficult to discuss, such as mental illness.


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