As Next to Normal begins, Diana Goodman (Elizabeth Matjacic) seems to be a normal wife and mother making sandwiches for her family, sending her kids off to school. But, as the story unfolds, the audience discovers that she is somewhere next to normal as she undergoes various, increasingly intense treatments for her mental ill-health. Struggling to connect to a “normal” life, her husband Dan (Jonathan Guthrie-Jones) is patient and long-suffering as he takes her from doctor to doctor in search of the woman he remembers. Meanwhile, their over-achieving daughter, Natalie (Kate Warner), keeps you wondering whether she is in the early stages of her own battle with mental illness or is simply coping with a life that is nowhere near normal.
Next to Normal, the latest offering from Fab Nobs Theatre, has its fair share of wrenching moments which are rooted in the mundane, everyday experiences of family life; moments which mirror the confusion, fear and emotional turmoil of the millions of families dealing with this journey each day.
A psychologist by day, Ms Matjacic notes that the journey she takes us on as Diana has an aspect of realism, though normally from the ‘other chair’.
“I have approached the role in a way that I normally approach my counselling – by putting myself into Diana's shoes and considering the world from her (confused) perspective,” said Ms Matjacic. “Knowing about mental illness and understanding the kinds of symptoms she experiences gives me an insider’s view to the illness and how she might feel; but in the end, she is ultimately a woman who has suffered an unimaginable trauma – something like that always leaves scars.”
For Director Nick Kong, Next to Normal is, “to be considered as one of the most compelling and raw modern music theatre pieces of our generation. The musical’s view on drugs, grief and relationships is unflinching. However, the most complex theme and strongest message from the piece is that of love. That love has no boundaries, it draws people together and it also has the power to drive them apart. It is this multifaceted subject matter that drove my desire to direct the piece. To create the piece was vital that we gathered a cast who are not only amazing singers but who are also grounded within their acting craft. The emotion drives the piece so we really need to find thinking actors – people who were willing to put in the hard yards and evolve the writing on the page to believable characters.”
With music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal has been acclaimed for its poignant portrayal of mental illness, boasting a powerful rock musical score that captures the highs and lows of family’s journey through the mental health system. With an unflinching commentary on society’s desire to “fix it all”, the provocative show is summarised by a Diana singing of her torment, post-ECT treatment: “what happens if the cut, the burn, the break, was never in my brain, or in my blood – but in my soul?”
Next to Normal is anything but. It makes a demand on an audience that few musicals dare to make, strapping you in for a rollercoaster ride through the devastating effects of mental illness on a seemingly normal family. To reach the ending an emotional investment from the audience is required, but it’s worth it for a show that won three Tony Awards and received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the only musical since Rent).
Next to Normal is showing at The Fab Factory, 33 Industry Place Bayswater from 15 – 30 June. Visit www.fabnobstheatre.com.au for ticket information and booking details.