At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in Vancouver September 8 – October 9.
I’ve twice been asked to provide “inside colour” on the role of a psychologist – once for a movie, once for a play. Both times I’ve secretly cringed. Mental health doesn’t usually get treated well.
“Please: all I ask is that the therapist character doesn’t sleep with the patient.”
Well, you can guess. Both times.
And then, as always, we’re expected to sympathize with the therapist character, despite the fact they’ve just shown themselves to be incompetent, unethical, and a stain on the profession. So generally I don’t hope for much.
In 2009 I spent a few days at the Stratford Festival in Ontario and met Michael Kuchwara, the Associated Press theatre critic, up from New York to review that season’s productions. Knowing what I do for a living, he later sent me a CD of the Broadway recording of Next to Normal, a musical about bipolar disorder.
I listened with my usual skepticism, but was struck by how insightful – and entertaining – it was. When I found myself in New York in 2010, I went to see the production. Five days later it won the year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama.
I was so impressed with the play that I wrote to the artistic director at the Arts Club in Vancouver advocating for it – something I’ve never done before. Little did I know, it was already in the works for fall 2011.
Most musicals tend to voyage far from reality. Their most ardent defenders offer the excuse that they are meant to distract people from the drudgery of everyday life. The best plays, however, serve as more than distractions. They illustrate everyday life, including the more painful parts.
Next to Normal is remarkable for cutting closer to the bone than any musical play in recent memory. It describes the life of an American family, and a woman who has suffered from bipolar disorder for 16 years. As the play opens the simple act of making lunch provides a hint that things are a bit iffy on the mental health front, and a confrontation with painful reality partway into the play shakes what little stability she has achieved, sending her into a spiral.
This sounds like pretty grim stuff, but the play is surprisingly funny. A fast-paced recitation of medications (“Zoloft and Paxil and Buspar and Xanax…”) contains an allusion to The Sound of Music (sing it out loud and you can guess) and is followed by an even faster recitation of side effects. After one “adjustment” the patient fixes her psychiatrist with a stare and says, acidly, “Not a very exact science, is it?” Her daughter, grasping for an excuse that will allow her boyfriend to avoid the chaos of a family dinner, settles momentarily on rabies.
The humour – much of it of dark - provides welcome relief for some steep dives into the reality of severe mental illness and its treatment. Mental health professionals may cringe, but for once it isn’t because of the false notes in the writing. It's in the sharpness of the picture and an awareness of the limitations of our professions. Hidden in the production there is a kind of emotional code that tells clinicians that the authors, somehow, know whereof they speak.
Professionals are likely to feel moments of surprise at the portrayal of emotions and thoughts that they have never seen portrayed on stage before. Almost every line brought to mind one or another real person I have seen over the years in my clinical work. The husband asks “Who’s crazy? The one who can’t cope, or maybe, the one who still hopes? The one who sees doctors or the one who just waits in the car?” What ensues is more real than any reality show would dare display. A song about the appeal of self-destruction is startlingly true to life.
One of the most striking aspects of the play is that all of the central characters have an emotional arc. The mother feels misunderstood and ashamed of her failure to maintain her stability, while missing the emotional peaks and valleys of her life without medication. The daughter fears that she will wind up like her mother, and buries herself in drugs and Mozart in an attempt to escape the pressure cooker. The father, who initially seems to be a backdrop for the mother’s drama, reveals how the illness of his wife has enabled him to avoid his own journey. Even the psychiatrist, initially a cipher, confronts his own limited powers.
Any summary of Next to Normal runs the risk of making it sound like a “cultural vegetable”: something that is good for you but not necessarily entertaining. Far from it. The New York Times referred to it as not just a feel-good musical, but a “feel everything musical.” They were right. It richly deserved the Pulitzer it earned. It's hard to imagine anyone seeing this play and remaining unaffected. I strongly recommend it.
What if the play describes your own challenges - should you see it? It depends on the person. I think that the majority of people affected by bipolar disorder (personally or through family) will find it affirming to see it portrayed seriously, sensitively, humourously, and without any sugar-coating. But Diana doesn't have an easy time of it, and isn't the greatest "treatment responder." If despair seems too close to home lately, the experience could be a bit intense in certain passages. If I had to guess, of 100 people with bipolar disorder, 10 will emerge somewhat shaken, 90 will be stirred.
For tickets and information, go to http://www.artsclub.com/
September 16 update: I have now seen the Arts Club Production. See the post on it here.
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