Next to (Ab)normal

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.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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2 Responses to Next to (Ab)normal

  1. chall says:

    Oh yes, Next to Normal.

    I saw the musical last year and wasn’t really prepared for it. Funny, since I usually read up on plays and musicals I go and see, but this time it was an impulsive “let’s go see the musical”. I had to tell my company at the time that I felt a little strange and that probably needed me to be a little alone in the break. Hit too close to home and I sort of see your comment there about not missing school… I’ve not been vocal about it, partly because it it one of those problem areas “not my thing to talk about” since you ‘out’ someone else. After all, I’m not the one with the issue so why should I say anything? (rethorical question obvs). I think the musical shows part of it. The other part being, from my point of view, that the manic person can be oh so charming, creative and fast moving, which in our present world is quite attractive to many people. Maybe just not to the ones close by?

    all in all, I agree with you that I hope many will see it. Gives a little different view of the family dynamic, not to mention that it isn’t the most obvious choice for a musical.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    The issue of “telling” others about a family member with mental illness is still stigmatized in today’s society. And of course, blogging about it might seem tactless, or even cruel. Not to mention writing a novel in which a bipolar parent plays a key role. In my case, since this parent is no longer alive, it’s both easier to write about and perhaps harder to deal with. Open wounds that’ll never heal.

    I think the for those close to a family member suffering from BPD, it’s unspeakably worse than unipolar depression, even severe unipolar depression. The reason is that those cycles (as my novel portrays) are particularly cruel, because they start to instill hope as the patient moves out of depression. But then the manic phase kicks in and any semblance of hope or trust is gone, and one can only ‘anxiously’ await the next crash into depression.

    I think Next to Normal does a great job of depicting a family with a mother/wife who has a mental disorder, but I think the depiction may border closer to schizophrenia than BPD. Nonetheless, well worth seeing.

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