By Dale King
Next to Normal – the musical now being staged at the Lake Worth Playhouse – pulls no punches in its powerful portrayal of a woman haunted and dismayed by mental illness and the misery it inflicts on her loved ones.
The show is frank and overt, focusing not only on the woman’s unpredictable behavior, but also on the plenitude of pills she consumes, the frightening treatments she undergoes and her own unfulfilling interactions with physicians that just don’t seem to improve her condition.
The play is delivered in a rock musical style that borders on operatic as the show concentrates on a household in psychological crisis. This tale of multiple woes holds the audience’s attention as tautly as mental illness holds onto Diana (Diane Tyminski), the family matriarch whose affliction dominates the show’s action which, for obvious reasons, moves slowly.
Next to Normal, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009 and won three, including one for Best Musical Score. It also earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Daniel Eilola, artistic director at the playhouse, helms this emotionally charged narrative presented on a stage fettered with incompletions. Doorways are just frames, with no doors or hardware. Shingles on the house are also unfinished, displaying gaps of varying size. Rooms have no walls and furniture is scarce.
The ensemble of players under Eilola’s direction makes this production work. This is not a feel-good play; it’s a feel-everything production that assesses the impacts that happen when wounded people are subjected to an array of unfulfilled promises and dashed hopes – at home and institutionally.
The show stars an actress probably known by most local theatergoers, Diane Tyminski, who steps out of her comfort zone to portray the vulnerable and sorely anguished Diana with insight and understanding of her plight. Tyminski, who has appeared in fluffier shows such as Barnum, They’re Playing Our Song and I Do, I Do, and is often paired with her husband, Jim, takes the major step to a higher level of dramatic angst. You can’t help being emotionally stirred by the character’s sorrow and the pain her condition causes those who love her. Such palpable emotion affects the audience as well, accounting for well-earned standing ovations.
Next to Normal gets right to the point, with Diana making lunches for her teenage kids, Gabe (Jorge Amador) and Natalie (Lara Palmer). Husband Dan (Joshua Bramkamp) shows up to find her slathering mustard on bread at such a rapid rate that slices fly all over the floor – to the accompaniment of the song “Just Another Day” – and not the McCartney version.
Dan quiets his disoriented wife as the scene changes to Natalie at school, releasing her pent-up anger by practicing for an upcoming piano recital in the music room. Henry (Corydon Gawlikowski) makes his first appearance as a would-be suitor who seems to accompany Nat through much of the play.
On-stage situations begin taking odd turns. The family gathers to celebrate Gabe’s birthday – even though he died 16 years ago. In another scene, Diana, on a gurney, is wheeled onto the stage by doctors to prepare her for electroshock therapy. Suddenly, Diana is spotlighted in an upper box seat of the theater, singing to the woman on the gurney – presumably, her. And then Natalie, also singing, shows up in an upper box on the other side of the stage.
At times, the music seems superfluous, hazing into the background like rock songs playing in an elevator. Occasionally, the music does help deliver the message. In the “Prelude,” Diana takes a cue from Sound of Music to sing: “These are a few of my favorite pills.”
Gabe, who is generally accepted as a hallucination, offers the wishful song: “I’m Alive.” And after the shock therapy has left Diana with memory lapses, she, Dan and Natalie sing, “Song of Forgetting.”
Throughout the show, Diane visits Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, both portrayed by Leo Jasper Davis. Each character seems aloof and not particularly interested in helping Diana get better. They often fall back on trite cure suggestions.
The tight-knit cast exhibits fine vocal and acting skills, and music director Roger Blankenship keeps the music right on cue. Carpenters Nelson Stone, James Cartee, Saxz Stevens and M.A. Knoke deserve a pat on the back for their creation of eclectic, impressive scenery under the direction of scenic/lighting designer Grace Curillo.
Next to Normal plays through April 11 at the Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth Beach. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 561-586-6410 or visiting www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.