Mental illness has never been this intense . . . Well, yes, actually it has. I’m sure we all know people (or are people) who suffer from psychological difficulties, ranging in seriousness, and have at least glimpsed the kind of havoc it can cause. It’s complicated, it can seem insurmountable, and the pain is vivid. Lower Ossington Theatre's production of Next to Normal effectively portrays at least some of the intensity and complexity of serious mental illness. And it's impressive.
Next to Normal is a musical about a family’s struggle to make sense of the severe mental illness of one of its members. After verisimilitude and its attendant intensity, the musical’s second greatest strength is the voices of its cast, who can really belt out the tunes. Unfortunately, when I saw it the sound system didn’t seem quite able to cope with the occasional times when the whole cast was belting at once — is it simply that the volume was up too loud? Anyway, it’s a minor technical issue, easily rectified, and doesn’t reflect on the talent of the actors.
When I’m enjoying a narrative, the thing most likely to take me out of the moment is a cliché. Bombard me with clichés and I’m done; I just don’t care anymore. Next to Normal avoids clichés so well that I was genuinely surprised by the plot twists and had no idea how it would end. The show is a nuanced tale involving complicated problems, and it left me a bit drained, but definitely not bored.
But it’s not just a well-done doom-and-gloom fest. It’s very amusing, too, full of quirky jokes, including a few good lines from the daughter, Natalie Goodman, played by the very talented Jacqueline Martin. However, the most enjoyable character has to be the therapist (actually therapists), played by David Michael Moote (the fella in the lab coat pictured above), who can push a pill like nobody’s business and whose devilish good looks would have me taking whatever he prescribed without question.
The production is in support of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.