A single line in Cardinal Productions presentation of playwright Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal, currently playing at Emeryville’s Urban Field House, is like a double-edged sword. It ties the play together but at its other end demonstrates clearly how separate from reality life exists at the Goodman’s typical, but far from it, home.
The line seems innocuous enough but it prolifically explains the deep gulf between normal and mental illness normal. When Lindsay Norris, playing with distinction the role of Diana Goodman, meets daughter Natalie’s boyfriend Henry for the first time she is sure he reminds her of someone.
That someone is her son. The only problem is the distance of fifteen and some years she has lived, and suffered the debilitating impact of bi-polarism, since the young child died, at 18 months of medical complications. Despite being gone, Gabe Goodman is alive and well, and even sings about such a condition. His actor, Drew Beaudoin, crafts a character so nonchalant he seems devilishly arrogant.
Then there is his steady singing voice. There are 37 Tom Kitt rock songs in the play. With some repeats, the total number of sung songs is close to 46. Although the tale is told largely through music, concentrated bits of dialogue significantly bring it to life.
Some of the songs are admittedly uplifting for a rather dark story, particularly Beaudoin’s take on I’m Alive. The play also benefits considerably from the commanding baritone of Joe Cardinal himself who succeeds with great aplomb in the role of Diana’s long-suffering husband Dan. Despite living with a woman testing the borders of schizophrenia, Cardinal presents a character with an abundance of empathy with only one break in which emotions peak.
After ECT, or shock therapy, Diane loses much of her memory. A music box, which mysteriously appears, takes her back to the day Gabe died, a memory she has lived without following the ECT therapy. It is a flashback able to un-glue the family and impact daughter Natalie’s life in profound ways.
Putting the box into the play is a devilish move by Gabe who does it surreptitiously enough to expose the demonic nature of his non-human existence. Because it brushes so close to reality for many families living behind the closed doors of surburbia, or even urban villages, it is not a sunny day’s play.
It is also somewhat of a risk for Cardinal to produce such a departure from his usual explorations of lovers and scoundrels and happy times but it is a story he is convinced is right. He tells Eyes on Windsor it simply has to be told and in doing so for him it is a source of uninterrupted satisfaction.
Even though his character lives in less than pleasant times, it is very clear Cardinal is enjoying his performance and those of his superb cast members who flawlessly act out the various nuances of the ramifications of mental illness.
In one particular scene, Cardinal uses a two-level stage, while his Dan works through a particular verbal altercation with Diana on the second level Natalie and boyfriend Henry, played with innocent freshness by Nick Palazzolo, mimic the same interaction. Natalie, Regan White’s character, grandly displaying an impenetrable confusion of the life around her, is the unintended victim of her mother’s peculiarities. Diane’s departure from normalcy is evident enough when she declares Valium to be her favourite colour. She is heavily medicated and suffers from bouts of depression so deep she attempts suicide.
The point of the story, in somewhat of a nutshell, is the ability of her illness to adversely influence her daughter’s life. That is the tragedy of mental illness and presents a considerable challenge to White who is trying, and doing it so well, to play a teenager attempting to enjoy her teenage years. She is under incredible duress in a family in which Dan admits there hasn’t been a normal day in the household “in years.”
It is a play worth examining, to savour the music and watch the pathos of Diane’s life. She is a woman with lows abysmally deep and highs which soar, so much so her high spirits are blamed for her being banned from the PTA.
Next to Normal will run March 29, 30, and 31 at the Urban Field House, 1203 Faith Drive in Emeryville. Tickets, at $25, are available from Cardinal Music box office, 2569B Jefferson Blvd. Information is available at www.cardinalmusicproductions.com or on the Next To Normal Eyes On Windsor Event Listing.
Article by Robert Tuomi
For over a decade, Robert has covered local news and community events. Initially as a contributor to CBC Radio’s local morning show and then as the long-time producer and host of CJAM’s The Rest of the News and as a journalist at the Windsor Square. A graduate of the Nikon School of Photography he enjoys illustrating his reports with what he sees through his camera’s lens.