I’ve had a rough time this week; not just the stress at work, the snow storm here in Omaha, a bit of illness and a young inexperienced driver smacking into the back of our car. It’s more than that. Part of it has to do with a play that I watched this week.
“Next to Normal” cast at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center sponsored the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal” at the Omaha Community Playhouse, and my wife and daughter and I attended the preview night. While I am an avid patron of the theater, normally (to use that word) I only attend musicals under one condition – when my daughter is in the cast. Otherwise, I tend to yawn and lose interest as soon as the actors open their mouths to sing.
Well, although my daughter recently appeared in another terrific play directed by Omaha Community Playhouse Resident Director Amy Lane (“Recommended Reading for Girls“), and she acted together with the immensely talented star of “Next to Normal” (Angela Jenson-Frey) in “The Sound of Music” at the Papillion-LaVista Community Theater a few years ago, she was not in this cast. And yet there I was, in the audience, spellbound by the fantastic performances of the 6 actors in the play. Why? What made me give up an evening of reading and writing to go to this musical?
“Next to Normal” addresses a topic that is close to my heart – too close, in fact. So close that although the story differs greatly from my first novel, “Matter Over Mind,” the essence and message of the story is similar. The play is about the life of a suburban mother who has been suffering from a psychotic mental illness (loosely diagnosed as bipolar disorder) for the last 16 years, the struggles of her loving husband to help her, and the terrible price paid by her daughter who feels abandoned and angry. As in “Matter Over Mind,” the focus is not just on the patient himself/herself, but also on the impact that mental illness has for other family members – an issue that’s been largely ignored until recent years.
From my perspective, as an affected family member – despite the tears that the show brought to the eyes of many in the audience – I felt that the real-life impact on the surrounding family is even greater than that portrayed in the musical. Yes, the actors and director put on a superb show. The teenage daughter (played by Grace Bydalek) who turned to anger and drugs did an exemplary job venting her pent up frustration with her mother. And of course every patient is afflicted differently; no two cases are the same. Nonetheless, my own experiences with a bipolar disorder parent were far harsher. However, as noted by Omaha World Herald play critic Bob Fischbach:
“The acid test for any cast of “Next to Normal,” a musical about a family coping with mental illness, is how much they make you feel — and how deeply you feel it.”
And the musical dredged up a lot of emotions and difficult memories for me, and even a new revelation or two. I had always been proud that as a child and youth, from 1st grade on through 12th grade I didn’t miss a single day of school due to illness. Well, that’s not strictly true, but it would have been if I hadn’t had my appendix removed. In any case, the reason is not that I am a superman of the type that Cath wrote about recently in The Guardian, immune to all disease (I wish!). No. It’s because I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone with a parent who was so unstable. So much so, that I was able to bear colds and fevers and flus, nausea and pain – just to be out of the house. Anything to be away from an unpredictable parent: the instability of slamming doors and anger one minute, depressed and never coming out of the bedroom for weeks on end, or sky-high mile-a-minute gibberish at other times. At an early age I lost a parent. Not to cancer, or heart disease. But my trust in the parent had dissipated.
Some of this comes across in the dark humor of Matter Over Mind. But every new exposure to mental disorder and the suffering of those close to the patient further unravels the onion peel that has surrounded my soul. Apparently, “Next to Normal” achieved its goal for the audience. It did so for me as well.
If you have a chance to see this musical, don’t miss it.