Last weekend, the Kenyon College Players (KCP) presented “Next to Normal,” a musical that questions what it means to be “fine” and what it means to feel. The show, which ran on Broadway from 2009 to 2011, tells the story of a family coming apart at the seams. The mother, Diana, suffers from bipolar disorder and other negative mental health symptoms as a result of the death of her infant son 18 years prior. Early in the show, she stops taking her medication, and experiences a downward spiral as a result. Diana’s health strains her relationships with her husband and daughter, who are each dealing with mental health issues of their own.
KCP’s production, directed by Garrick Schultz ’20, was staged in the Black Box Theater on Nov. 8 and 9. Free tickets vanished quickly due to a limited number of seats. Several audience members who had been placed on the waitlist for tickets, but wanted to see the show anyway, chose to sit on risers separating rows of seats. Despite the squeezing, the intimacy of the venue suited the performance well. “Next to Normal” does not feature extravagant dance numbers, costumes or sets. It is a show about mental illness, treatment, family dysfunction and the debilitating isolation of grief, all issues traditionally kept behind closed doors. The confined space of the Black Box placed the audience on the front lines of a deeply personal drama, resulting in a viewing experience that is as unsettling as it is moving.
The show’s six-person cast was essential in getting this emotional punch to land. Each cast member sang beautifully, but it was their believable portrayal of their characters’ respective struggles that hit the most impressive notes. While clearly well-rehearsed, the characters’ interactions with each other brimmed with genuine, raw feeling.
Els Dusek ’21 anchored the show with her portrayal of Diana. Her performance reflected the highs and lows Diana sings about in “I Miss the Mountains,” with moments of stillness and moments of devastating eruption. Diana remains sympathetic even when she is hurting the people around her because Dusek communicates her pain so well.
The strength of Diana’s grief was magnified by the performance of Brennan Doyle ’21, whose character encompasses the ghost of Diana’s deceased son as well as Diana’s own darkest impulses, a sort of personified version of mental illness. The character is an ominous, seductive presence that escalates into unhinged menace as the show goes on. Doyle was as fun to watch as he was terrifying, with the song “I’m Alive” as a definite standout. As he dashed around the set with exuberance, Doyle made eye contact with members of the audience, reminding them of his omnipresent threat.
The rest of the cast was also excellent. Ethan Starr ’20 was endearing and sympathetic as Dan, Diana’s husband, who suppresses his own grief in order to support his wife. Skyler Lesser-Roy ’22 balanced frustration with dry humor in her performance as Natalie, Diana and Dan’s daughter. The chemistry between her and Henry Ratliff ’20, who played Natalie’s love interest, provided the show with several of its more uplifting moments. Jon Hammond ’20 played two separate psychiatrists, and his mimicry of a stereotypical therapist’s cadence was a joy to watch.
These performances also benefited from the pit band, comprised of Kenyon students. Positioned on either side of the show’s action, the band helped further bridge the audience and the performance. Although the music occasionally made it difficult to hear the actors when they were away from the microphones downstage, it was a positive, dynamic contribution to the overall performance.
A show like “Next to Normal” requires a great deal of sensitivity and commitment in order to be successful. Mental illness is often misrepresented and trivialized in media, despite being a very real issue from which an increasing number of people report suffering. KCP’s production handled these issues with nuance and gravity. The show ends on an uplifting note, with each character reaching an arm out towards the audience as light floods the stage. The message is one of understanding, connection and hope. As the final line of the musical states, “There will be light.”