Photograph by Craig Schwartz
HELPFUL HEALING: Alice Ripley and Asa Somers: Worth the drive.
By David Templeton
Depression, suicide and bipolar disorder are unlikely subject matters for a Broadway musical, but as the Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal proves, sometimes the least promising idea can give life to the most satisfying works of art. Created by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the hard-hitting show won several Tony awards on Broadway. Directed by Michael Greif (who also directed the original production of Rent), Next to Normal now comes to San Francisco, where it’s just opened a four-week run at the Curran Theater, bringing with it Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her creation of the lead role in the show.
Diana, played with raw and riveting intensity by Ripley, has been struggling with bipolar disorder for years. Diana’s loving, long-suffering husband, Dan (Asa Somers, heartbreaking in the role), has allowed the need to heal his wife to consume his world and eclipse the needs of his family. Dan and Diana’s teenage daughter, Natalie (a vulnerably appealing Emma Hunton), is an overachieving oddball at school, resentful of her mother’s emotional absence and the unpredictable, embarrassing antics that keep her from inviting friends home from school.
Natalie’s tentative friendship/courtship with amiable pothead Henry (Preston Sadleir) eventually leads her into a path of tentative adolescent self-destruction, as Gabe, Natalie’s older brother, takes Diana’s side. Initially, he appears as his mother’s only sympathetic support system (he encourages her not to take her drugs), but in a head-turning first-act twist, Gabe is revealed to be at the root of Diana’s illness, a jarring illustration of just how far her illness has progressed.
The entire production, fueled by a tight, onstage rock band playing Yorkey’s electrifying score, is grounded in compassion and keenly observed details of Diana’s day-to-day inner life. But the best parts of Next to Normal are its honest depictions of how Diana’s struggles are affecting those around her. As Diana rides a wave of therapies and treatments, Next to Normal draws provocative material from the growing desperation of her doctors (all played by Jeremy Kushnier), and the increasingly determined Dan, who just wants to help but very possibly may not be able to.
The songs dig deep, stretching from the cagy opening number “Just Another Day” and Dan’s lovely “I Am the One” to Diana’s searing electroshock number “Wish I Were Here” and the rousing, life-affirming anthem “Light.” That such material can be presented with so much humor and insight and still constitute no-holds-barred Broadway entertainment is quite a feat. In its stirring climax, the show becomes a celebration of those willing to risk caring for people whose love does not come without danger.
In addition to theater fans, Next to Normal is proving to be of special interest to folks involved in the mental health system. The Sonoma and Marin County NAMI chapters (National Alliance on Mental Illness) have arranged a special “awareness night” for the evening of Feb. 11, with discounted tickets available to NAMI members.
Meanwhile, another show with “event” written all over it is FOG Theater’s Talking With . . . , opening this weekend at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Written by Jane Martin, the show is directed by Sheri Lee Miller and stars a dream cast of North Bay actresses. Essentially a series of monologues and first-person stories about some hard lesson that each character has faced and learned from, the production features Madeleine Ashe, Mollie Boice, Danielle Cain, Kendall Carroll, Joan Felciano, Kimberly Kalember, Priscilla Locke, Sheri Lee Miller and Audrey Tatum. (Elly Lichenstein, originally announced as part of the cast, was forced to withdraw after the sudden illness of her husband, the much-loved theater-supporter Ren Bonel, who passed away Sunday evening).
Taken with Next to Normal, the cleverly written show is another sensitive examination—with plenty of humor to balance the pain—of the inner strength and determination that can, with love and patience, turn tragedy into triumph.
‘Next to Normal’ runs Tuesday-Saturday through Feb. 20 at the Curran Theatre. Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm; 2pm matinees, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. 445 Geary St., San Francisco. $30-$99. 888.746.1799. ‘Talking With . . .’ runs Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 20 at the Spreckels Center. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday matinee at 2pm. 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. $15. 707.588.3400.