I haven’t seen many musicals that start out so full-throttle that they don’t even give the audience the chance to applaud until after the third song, but that’s Next to Normal for you. It’s not your typical musical. The story centers around a seemingly typical white, suburban family, who turn out to be a far cry from normal, as is easy to gather from the title. Diana, the mother of this nuclear family, has severe bipolar depression and has been struggling with it for 16 years. The musical explores how her mental illness impacts all aspects of her life and bleeds into the lives of her husband, daughter, daughter’s boyfriend and son. She has to suffer various forms of treatment including medication that completely emotionally numbs her. The intimacy and unapologetic openness of the show takes the audience into many of Diana’s therapy sessions as well as her most vulnerable and personal moments in order to bring about more awareness of mental illness.
One of the essential ways Xavier was able to bring the goal of the show to life is through the acting choices made by the cast, which were unlike those I had seen and heard before. Cassie Delicath, who played Diana, chose to emphasize the detached depressive states of Diana’s bipolar depression over her manic episodes. This choice, which is the opposite of most productions, shifted the entire tone of the show. It changed the nature of the relationships she had with each character, especially her family members. The show was much subtler and the actors were raw with emotion particularly Delicath and Matthew Wilkinson who played Dan, Diana’s husband. With this subtle realistic acting, it felt as if the audience was intruding, peering in on a neighbor’s home. The fights, the moments of grief—everything was incredibly powerful because of this. Making the audience feel so connected to the family—evidenced by the amount and frequency of teary eyes in the audience—helped viewers build empathy outside of the confines of the show, toward those who have mental illness.
This empathy inducing performance alone wasn’t enough for Xavier Theatre. They wanted to do more in order to help their audience understand the struggles of mental illness and to destigmatize it. To do this, the department collected money through their usual charitable donation program, Xavier University Theatre Gives Back (XUTGB), for an organization called 1N5, which helps to support teens with mental health conditions. Even further, they held a talkback after each show during which audience members were invited by Xavier staff members at McGrath to share their thoughts on the show and mental illness.
Xavier Theatre put so much effort into getting a conversation rolling on campus about mental illness. They poured themselves out emotionally through demanding character roles and went above and beyond by hosting the talkbacks. Many students will feel as grateful for their efforts to open up a dialogue about this important issue as the Xavier Theater does for their stellar production.
By: Liz Harris | Guest Writer