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THEATER REVIEW - Next to Normal

by Chris Conley

THEATER REVIEW (WSAU)   I'm uncomfortable with Next To Normal. The Wausau Community Theater production that opened tonight is very well acted. It has a hard-driving and effective rock-infused score. It's entertaining. It also shocks and leaves you unsettled... which is exactly what's supposed to happen. But my discomfort goes beyond that.

Diana Goodman is bi-polar. OK, so are 5-million others in the United States. She's also suffered a great personal loss that she's trying to repress. As you might imagine, she can't. Normality is slipping away quickly. Medication, in all its pills and combinations, isn't working. Extreme treatment is suggested, then tried. Ultimately a marriage and family break apart. Diana will try to live without meds, treatment, or therapy, and we're led to believe that maybe, just maybe, there's a light at the end of this tunnel even after the patient turns their back on everything modern psychiatry has to offer.

But I felt manipulated. This isn't a biography; it's a work of fiction. Diana is, at best, a composite of many people trying to live with mental illness. Things didn't have to end up this way. We got to where we are because, well, that's the way the Next to Normal was written. 

While Diana is getting drug-treatment, she confesses to her doctor that she feels nothing... her medication cocktail has left her numb to everything. Her psychiatrist expresses satisfaction; "patient, stable," he says. If I was a doctor I'd be furious. The play could have just as well been scripted with the doctor saying, "That's not good enough. We'll keep trying until it's right." Diana and her husband could have decided that controversial electro-shock treatment wasn't an option, and found doctors who offered other choices. They don't. Diana, even as her condition worsened, could have just as easily leaned more heavily on her husband and children instead of deciding that solitude and abandonment was the best path. These are all forks in the road. Different choice might have led to better outcomes. But it's a fools errand for me to re-write a play as I hoped it would be. I can't help but think millions of Diana's have similar challenges and have better outcomes because they weighed their choices differently.

Kate Kierzkowski is the star of the cast, even though she lands in a supporting role. She plays Donna's teenage daughter Natalie and shows that she can handle a rock score just as easily as Rodgers & Hammerstein. Grant Coopersmith, a new voice for Wausau Community Theater productions, is a welcome addition. The two leads, Michele Schlegel (Donna) and Mike McKenna (as her husband, Dan) have demanding roles with lots of material, and both were very good at expressing emotion through their singing.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, which is a better play than movie, is an obvious reference point for a play about mental health. Our treatment of the mentally ill is more enlightened than 50 years ago. We don't lobotomize patients we can't control. It's a relic. We watch it with a mild smugness -- we don't do that to people anymore.

Maybe Next To Normal suggests that modern treatment hasn't come as far as I'd like to think. Maybe that's why I'm uncomfortable. Maybe I held out too much hope that these lives could have turned out better. 

Chris Conley
11.7.13