Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Mental Illness Front and Center: Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal” takes the stage in La Mirada

The cast of La Mirada's "Next to Normal" - A family faces the doctor, and themselves [photo: Michael Lamont]

The cast of La Mirada’s “Next to Normal” – A family faces the doctor, and themselves [photo: Michael Lamont]

In all the recent debate about the nature of mental health care in the United States, the conversation is usually about what one should do about or for someone with such an illness. Rarely is one offered a peek inside the lives and families of people afflicted, except after some tragedy happens.

Perhaps this is one reason why Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s musical “Next to Normal” won a Pulitzer Prize. By examining, up close, the ways in which a bi-polar, depressed and delusional woman, and her family, struggle with her illness, the entire issue begins to resonate on a far more universal level. One looks at the people, not the disease.

In the new McCoy Rigby Entertainment production at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, “Next to Normal” stands out for just that: its humanity. Beautifully performed, and directed by Nick DeGruccio with a balance of sensitivity and forward movement, the show becomes a sometimes painful, sometimes humorous, deeply touching window on a world which could use more empathy and more understanding.

Diana is a woman struggling for a balance, for managing the parts of her she cannot control without feeling deadened. As we meet, her impressive arsenal of medication is not working very well, and her family is about to be deeply affected.

Bets Malone handles Diana’s wry and affecting search for her own truth without overdoing the pathos. She sings with power and conviction a part which is tough on the human voice, and creates a very real persona one cannot help wanting to watch. Robert J. Townsend, as Diana’s wistful, struggling husband, becomes all those who wish they could fix what is broken in the person they love. His quiet desperation vibrates through the night.

Tessa Grady creates the absolutely recognizable impulsive teenager, wishing she had a usual mother, resentful that her mother’s illness remains at the center of her family. Alex Mendoza’s calm, youthful musician provides the young girl’s counterbalance – solid, dogged and unwavering. It’s a particularly nice turn.

The almost idyllic Eddie Egan provides a window into Diana, as her most persistent delusion. Keith A. Bearden does what he can to humanize the doctor who represents the voice of science in the midst of it all. It is he who consistently underscores what we do – and most particularly what we do not – know about how the human brain functions, and why treatments for mental illness do or do not work.

John Ezell creates the traditional “glass house” this piece needs to stay moving, which Steven Young’s pinpoint lighting brings into focus. Kish Finnegan’s costumes help define characters before they say a word. To say this show has a sense of ensemble extends to those behind the scenes making it all happen.

“Next to Normal” (the title comes from Diana’s aim: she’ll never be normal, but she’d settle for next to normal) opens up a world often left unseen. In a time of discussion about everything from government funding to the nature of appropriate treatment, it is a thought provoking, and important piece to see. At La Mirada, simply thanks to the nature of the theater itself, one is presented with the whole issue comparatively up close, which is a good thing.

Someone asked me part way through whether the show has a happy ending. The best I can say is that this depends on what you consider a happy ending to be. And, of course, when one deals with mental illness, this is always the case. Take a look. You will have a long search to find a rendition of this groundbreaking piece better than this one.

What: “Next to Normal” When: Through June 23, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Ave. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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