Updated: Feb 16
The Brilliance of Normal
Chance Theater stages “Next to Normal,” the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical about a suburban family facing the challenges of mental illness
By Joel Beers
The question isn’t why Chance Theater is currently producing the musical “Next to Normal.” It’s what took so long for a show that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama to reach the company’s Anaheim theater.
Because while the Chance does everything well—from its audience outreach and donor cultivation to the on-stage talent and directors and designers–it might do musicals the best. The last two years before the pandemic, the Chance earned Best Intimate Musical honors from the Ovation Awards, Los Angeles theater’s answer to the Tony Awards. (The Chance is also the favorite to snag an OC Theater Guild Award for Best Musical of 2021; its three nominations are the only nominations.)
But the Chance’s track record with musicals doesn’t involve wheeling out the old reliable warhorses or more contemporary cash-cows; no adorable red-headed orphans or frozen, wicked or otherwise Disney-fied properties have dazzled the Chance’s audiences. Instead, the Chance has built a large part of its artistic reputation on a blend of solid productions of musicals that ether address serious, problematic concerns like racism (“Ragtime,” “Parade”) and sexuality (“Fun Home”) or tell the kind of stories —-and feature the kinds of characters–that aren’t exactly traditional Sunday matinee fare, from the axe-wielding Lizzie Borden to the Loch Ness Monster.
But whether top-shelf Sondheim or a bawdy bunch of gender-confused dinosaurs, one throughline connecting most of the Chance’s musicals is that they are smart, challenging and unafraid of probing difficult, uncomfortable subjects.
Which gets us back to “Next of Normal,” a musical about a very uncomfortable subject (mental illness) but one entertaining enough to play for nearly 800 nights on Broadway and garner 11 Tony Award Nominations. Plus, it was literate enough to become only the eighth musical, at that time, to win the Pulitzer.
The show, about a suburban mother named Diana whose battle with bipolar disorder threatens to tear her family apart, is unusual for its subject matter. Even though an estimated 1 in 5 adult Americans experience a mental health issue in a given year (including 44 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults), it’s not a topic that regularly trends on Twitter. It’s also unusual how Diana’s story is such a harrowing white-knuckle ride through the manic highs and debilitating lows of bipolar disorder but yet also, at times, is so hilarious.
But what truly elevates the story of “Next to Normal” is how Diana’s journey defies what many in the audience might be predisposed to view her as: a victim. We may feel for Diana, deeply, but some audience members might feel as much anger or frustration toward her as compassion and empathy.
One big reason for that is that while the musical revolves around her volatile mood swings, delusions and the treatments she undergoes to deal with an issue that, at times, she’s not sure she wants treated, the real battle is being waged by those closest to her, particularly her husband and teenage daughter. It is through their eyes, or voices if you will, where the play’s heart is revealed. And that heart is a complicated one, filled with love and concern, absolutely, but also resentment and the guilt that comes with that.
Jocelyn A. Brown, who plays Diana and gets to enact the intoxicating heights and crushing depths her character oscillates between, agrees that while Diana is the dominant character, it’s not entirely her play.
“Although some might assume the protagonist is Diana, it is really about how ordinary people are coping with a severe mental health issue, how it impacts an entire family and those who care about them,” Brown said. “‘Next To Normal’ explores how we cope with extreme emotional difficulties and acute mental health issues, individually and as families.”
“Next to Normal” could have been the Great American Mental Health Musical, one that demands attention be paid to those who are so often stigmatized and to an issue that briefly becomes a talking point after the latest national trauma only to just as quickly be forgotten until the next one. But while it certainly has elements of that advocacy, it can also be seen as a quite worthy addition to a narrative that while not exclusively American does surface in many of our best plays, films and other stories: family, and how the ties that bind can sometimes feel like chains.
Diana is the one suffering,but there is collateral damage and it results from the friendliest of fire for it is inflicted upon those who care about her the most. Her teenage daughter (played by Angie Chavez) realizes her mother's condition but over-compensates, turning into an over-achieving teen on the edge of her own crisis.
But it’s the character of Dan who most embodies the other story in this play, one that is seldom told in so-called real life. As husband and father, Dan is the rock, the anchor, and keeping his family intact is all that matters. But what about him? At what point does devotion turn to obligation, responsibility into resentment, and care-giving into self-repression?
Tym Brown, who plays Dan in the Chance's show, gets to live all that on stage every performance. But while he realizes that his character’s main struggle is understanding that “until you can confront and overcome your own trauma, it’s going to be difficult to help someone else through theirs,” Brown said he has discovered, or affirmed, something about himself through this process.
“For me, this process has taught me to honor myself and what I have to offer,” he said. “Each character in this show does their best to survive each day, the best way that they know how. With compassion and kindness. This is how I try to live my life and in watching my cast mates develop these characters, I understood my purpose. Like Dan, I want to continue to be supportive, honest even when it hurts, unwavering in my love and bold enough to tackle buried ghosts.”
The complicated family dynamic, along with a main character whose reality doesn’t always match up with everyone else’s, makes for some complex storytelling, which is one of the main things that attracted director Matthew McCray to the project.
“I love a script that has complex storytelling that demands your attention,” he said. “This musical occasionally has multiple scenes happening at the same time, converging realities, and it is an emotional rollercoaster! These aspects of the musical make it very exciting to work on and are creatively very fulfilling to dig into.”
Part of that complex storytelling and converging reality is how to visually inform the audience when Diana’s internal reality is manifesting without them losing sight of the play, McCray said. So he and his design team decided that less was more as long as that less was pretty good.
“We have a lot of lighting and sound effects to help modulate between Diana’s mind-states,” he said, “whether Diana is lucid, confused or in a dream-state. These aspects are heavily supported throughout in the sound and lighting design. We decided very early on that we would not use video and I’m glad we made that choice because it keeps the focus on the performers on stage.”
As one of those performers on stage, Jocelyn Brown would rather have the audience’s focus than not; but one thing she said she has learned through this process is how even the tightest of bonds can loosen or sever, and how difficult, but important, the work is in trying to repair them.
“As much as love holds us together, the disparities between loved ones’ lived experiences can tear people apart,” she said. “It takes brutal honesty with ourselves, truly recognizing our own limitations, as well as acting with grace and patience with our loved ones as we try to navigate the waters and hopefully find healing and a path forward together. Hell, it takes a lot of humor, too. Being able to laugh despite it all!”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
‘Next to Normal’
Cripe Stage, Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts center, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim.
Previews: Jan. 28 - Feb. 4; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
Regular run: Feb. 5-27. Thu., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.