Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Next to Normal
Ephemeral meanings snap into focus, and the pain of being deeply misunderstood is broken into a spectrum of bright colors, owing to Diana's schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or maternal guilt, or some fascinating amalgam of things, major and minor. But when a ridiculous array of drugs fails to reintegrate her into normal life, modern medicine resorts to a kind of vintage scientific exorcism: strapping her down to a gurney for three weeks of electro-convulsive therapy. In this retelling, it's a very disorienting turning point.
A startling, demonic tone emerges in Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt's 2008 rock musical, as the presence of Gabe (played by the perfect Spencer Davis Milford) evolves from jokey teenager to sneering devil. And there seems to be no sure way of getting rid of him, as his influence gets darker and darker. We all know a musical can be about anythingMs. Lennon reminded us of that last year in a beautiful Grey Gardens, as Edith and "Little Edie" Beale. But this Next to Normal develops into a storynot just of mental illness, but also of suburban terror, beyond the help of a good health plan and an understanding husband.
That husband, Dan, is played by John Flack, who reveals a fine singing voice and good music sense throughout, on top of great acting ability. At each new episode of Diana's mental breakdown, he dedicates himself to just being "the man": buckling down and working each new sign of madness in to his ever-broadening concept of their marriage, though his exasperation builds steadily through song. It is as much the story of a caretaker and their children as one of an in-home patient.
But when Diana comes back from prolonged shock treatment, almost entirely a new woman, Dan's recreation of her through mementos and stories only builds a patchy emotional bridge to Diana's new identity as an independent person. Those quiet, intense, private minutes where Dan curates a docile Diana's past back to her manage become terrifying here, in a wistful sort of way. It's a labor of love, but it makes him not so much a Pygmalion as a Frankenstein.
Libby Jasper is great as their daughter Natalie, steadily working her own way toward a kind of emotional freedom, in spite of the struggle raging under her own roof. Her plight leads to one of a dozen fine songs, "Superboy and the Invisible Girl." Ryan Scott Foizey is excellent as Dr. Madden (four years ago he played Gabe, the son, in a first-rate production at New Line Theatre). And Max Bahneman seems the best possible "first boyfriend" for Natalie, as Henry: able to tolerate her anguished situation, on the way to something better.
A beautiful and harrowing production, the Insight Theatre Company Next to Normal runs through June 25, 2017, at the .ZACK Theatre, 3224 Locust (just west of Compton). .ZACK has their own parking lot right in front of the venue, but the building's second floor is often used for concerts and other events, so you may want to get there a little early to find a space. For more information visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association