News Article Details

Musical 'Next to Normal' tackles mental illness

South Bend Tribune - 8/24/2017

Aug. 24--The New York Times review of the original production of "Next to Normal" called it more of a "feel-everything musical" than "your standard feel-good musical."

No wonder: Just as "Rent" does with AIDS, the 2008 rock musical tackles a dark and complex subject matter -- mental illness.

"There's not light way to talk about it," Scott Michaels says. "It's a great drama. And a lot of people are looking for that."

"Next to Normal," which opens Tuesday at Wagon Wheel Theatre under Michaels' direction, depicts how a mother's mental illness effects and damages her family.

In addition to being good theater, Michaels says, "Next to Normal" is important because it addresses complex subject matter and, hopefully, will remove stigmas.

"People are scared to talk about it," he says, referring to mental illness. "People are afraid to get help. A lot of people struggle with it and don't get help."

Written by Brian Yorky with music by Tom Kitt, the musical focuses on Diana Goodman, a wife and mother who suffers from bipolar disorder and delusions -- be careful what you take to be real.

But, overall, the show, Michaels says, is about healing, which is not exclusive to those dealing with mental health issues.

"Everyone needs to heal. Everyone can heel. It's not just about mental illness," he says. "People will be surprised when it comes to the show. It's not depressing to watch; there's hopefulness."

Kira Lace Hawkins, who finished portraying the Witch on Saturday in Wagon Wheel's production of "Into the Woods," now takes on the role of Diana.

"I think there's a real honor to portraying such a character," she says in a phone interview between finishing a rehearsal for "Next to Normal" and a performance of "Into the Woods" later that evening. "Also, (I have) just a really strong desire to do it in a way that's truthful and honest and doesn't exploit the realities of her situation."

Throughout the musical, Diana suffers from delusions and mania followed by depressive states, all while trying to find treatment, which at one point makes her feel nothing. All of this takes its toll on her family.

"It is challenging because Diana really is the one to kind of inflict a lot of pain and she's feeling a lot of pain, too," Hawkins says about the family dynamics caused by Diana's illness. "Obviously, none of it is vindictive, but by the end of the show, I really feel like she's had such an effect on the people around her and I don't know how many people have been able to have an effect on her."

The actress says "Next to Normal," gives audiences a chance to think and reflect and that even though the subject matter is emotionally heavy, the final song should give viewers a sense of relief and hope.

"The last song of this show really does offer a healing message and invigorating message for people going through any issue," Hawkins says. "It doesn't have to be mental illness. It's just a really nice uplifting way to say, 'You watched us go through something, and here's one possible version of why the world is still good and why life is worth living and how to move forward in a positive way.'"

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(c)2017 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)

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