The ACU Theatre Department has never let controversial subject matter prevent it from putting on a play, and this years’ Cornerstone production, “Next to Normal,” is no exception. The musical won the Pulitzer for Best Play in 2010, dazzling audiences with its story of the effect of mental illness on a family.
“Next to Normal” tells the story of Diana (played by Alexandra Bonneau), a wife and mother struggling with bipolar and schizophrenic tendencies. Owen Beans plays her loyal husband and Caryn Esch portrays their neglected daughter, Natalie.
During the course of the show, Diana seeks mental help from multiple doctors in an attempt to permanently conquer her illnesses. The play offers a subtle commentary on the morality of various psychiatric treatment, exploring both sides of the issue without mindlessly condemning doctors. Natalie falls in love with a pothead named Henry (played to stoner perfection by Tyler Hazard) and fears her own eventual descent into insanity.
Perhaps the most striking question raised by the play is the question of what the value of reality is. Diana’s refusal to grieve and face reality forces her into a delusional world that excludes the rest of her family. When Natalie can no longer take being ignored by her mother, she turns to drugs for comfort and escape. Choosing the truth is often the most painful decision and “Next to Normal” fearlessly explores why the pain of reality is more beautiful than the bliss of delusions.
ACU’s production has cut much of the foul language in the songs but otherwise left the script unaltered. The purpose of the show is to explore emotional pain at its deepest and most desolate place and it would be dishonest and cheating the audience to censor the play and lighten this burden.
The seven-person cast offers an intimate look at the devastating consequences of refusing to live in reality and the value of life, regardless of happiness. The show is darkly humorous while grappling with serious topics such as drug use and suicide.
Although unafraid to portray the difficult reality and seemingly meaningless of life, “Next to Normal” offers an optimistic message. Dan and Henry refuse to abandon the women they love regardless of how Diana and Natalie have changed from the women they initially fell in love with. All of the characters eventually decide that pain is a necessary aspect of being alive. The message of the play is perfectly captured by a line in the shows final song, “Light,” in which the casts sings, “the price of love is loss but still we pay, we love anyway.”
“Next to Normal” runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Fulks Theatre. Tickets can be purchased for $15 by calling the Box Office.