The Price of Normal: NEXT TO NORMAL Speaks Raw, Honest Truth at HPP

by Terry Stern

(L to R) Frankie Rowles, Pat DeFusco and Sarah Pearson in a scene from Haddonfield Plays and Players' NEXT TO NORMAL. (Photo credit: David Gold)

Expressionist theatre gives us a stage rigged to show the world of the play as the main character see it. The central metaphor of the character’s life is actualized before us. If the character is bitterly convinced that reality is melting before him, the set will liquefy and run off, the lighting suggest dripping and drooping.

When the main character of the play is the bi-polar wife of a large, boring man whom she once loved and the mother of an astonishingly talented teenage girl whom she can’t stand as well as a teenage son whom she obviously loves dearly, we can expect the world of the stage to take on the lurching, spasmodic, bright-to-dark, tortured fish-flopping which is the lot of the manic-depressive. It does all that and more on the stage in Haddonfield.

NEXT TO NORMAL is the story of Diana Goodman’s struggle to keep a normal family as she battles bi-polar disorder triggered by the accidental death of a child. Given to us forcefully by Sarah DuVall Pearson, the play presents her struggles with the disease, with medications, with time flow, and with the wrenching fantasies to which she is prey as staged from her point of view inside the illness. Lights now scream in dazzling color, now plunge into drab shadow. People she encounters become fantasy figures in flash transformations then flash back to their normal selves.

I need to cite Ms. Pearson for an amazing talent. She has a voice so pure and expressive that at times I simply wanted to close my eyes and listen to her. Her voice alone is worth the price of admission. The yearning of her bewildered outcries in music drives through the notes and grabs the heart. Thank you for that treat, Ms. Pearson.

Pat DeFusco is a fine Dan Goodman, Diana’s bone-weary, hound-dog faithful husband desperately stretching to keep hold of a quickly retreating normal life until his own mind is nearly dislocated by the overreach. Perfectly understated, he flashes passion with pinpoint precision then subsides back into “normalcy”. We see surprising intensity as he insists things will be fine, will be normal. We wonder a little about this until we discover that he is also prey to the same spirit of discontent which haunts his wife, although with less intensity.

With a strong, tenor range, Mr. DeFusco navigated this emotional maze with elegance, clarity and honesty. His turn near the final curtain when he realizes he needs help to get through the turmoil is believable and moving to the extent that it brought me a tear. Thank you, Mr. DeFusco, for an excellent performance.

Matt Reher plays all the doctors in the show. Remember, this is from the patient’s point of view. After a while they blur into each other. He provides marvelous comic moments droning on in a calm, medical voice about medications and combination and side effect while Diane sings out her agonizing confusion above and around his voice. As this progresses, it takes a moment to realize that Mr. Reher has done mumbling about medical things and is now instructing us how to exit an airplane in case of emergencies. From the patient’s point of view, it’s all nonsense.

So profoundly are we wrapped in Diana’s struggles that it takes nearly half the play to realize that there is something very peculiar about the son, Gabe, whom she loves so much. Gabe is presented with supernal smokiness and innocent mystery by Frankie Rowles. Here and gone, gone and here, Mr. Rowles gives us a very fine rendering of a character half in, half out of a very odd circumstance. One thing which clues us into his peculiarity: even though he is most tender and loving for a teenage son, no one but his mother seems glad to see him.

The play is built with tandem sub-plots: the tumultuous relationship between Dan and Diane is reflected in parallel by the stormy, budding relationship between Natalie Goodman, daughter of the house, and her boyfriend, Henry, played with loving intensity by Brian Mackalonis. Mr. Mackalonis delivers unmotivated, unconditional love with complete believability and a most engaging style. He has a strong performance voice and range, delivering excellent solo performance and choral blending to this moving tale.

I have saved what I consider the true jewel of this gem-studded cast for last. There is not a single moment from curtain to curtain when I doubt that Colleen Murphy as Natalie Goodman is anything but the tormented teenage daughter of a bi-polar mother. When she sings, when she talks, when she blinks her eyes, she is real and present with an emotional onstage range which is almost scary. And she is 16 years old.

She is a teenager playing a teenager. Not a big stretch. But it is a dead-on wonder to me that someone of such tender years would have the craft not only to define but also fulfill such an emotional roller coaster of a role so completely not only in dialogue but in song. Brava, Ms. Murphy. I look forward to seeing you work again.

It is not a perfect production. Two things stand out. Where the 6-piece band is magnificent in accompaniment, the audio balance had them a shade too loud. The accompaniment overpowered the strong singing, particularly during, but not limited to, a crescendo rendered by the full band supporting a solo voice.

Second: where the lights are designed to reflect the highs and lows of the bi-polar world and thus alternate between hot spots and shadows, the blocking often has the principles standing with their faces in shadow. I found myself often wishing the actor would simply take a step forward as I grew weary of watching his knees. That went for everyone in the cast at one point or another. This would be the only circumstance in which I’d encourage all actors to go into the light.

But these things are not significant in the balance. They are forgiven as soon as they subside. This play presents such an unusual and compelling blend of music, character and theme that a glitch would have to be much larger to be daunting.

For instance, the audience does not leave the theatre humming any anthem or snapping to any catchy tune lingering in the mind. What lingers is the message to the extent that I almost forgot to mention that there are 18 songs in act I and 19 in act II. The music doesn’t stop. At times bright and harmonious, at times garish and discordant, it is wholly subservient to the theme. And that works with beauty and force in this offering. I rode the elevator with the family. I cried and raged with them. At one point, I sorely wanted to shout out to Diane not to sign the form, don’t sign the form! So engaged was I in the flow.

What is the price of normal? If you think you know, get to Haddonfield and see this timely mix of spectacle and theme delivered in stark power by a fine cast at Haddonfield Plays and Players tonight.

Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Ed Doyle and Jenn Kopesky
Haddonfield Plays and Players
957 E. Atlantic Ave.
Hddonfield, NJ

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