There is no normal: A play review and meditation on mental health

Culture Curmudgeon

Next To Normal

I have somewhat of an understanding of how it feels like to be like the living dead, but not fully.

The actual question posed to me- along with dozens of other people in the audience- was whether I knew how it felt like to die while still living.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His review of the play and meditations on mental health represents his views alone.  Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

A startling query made even more surprising since it was asked in the form of a very catchy pop tune. It was a rhetorical question sung in verse, but it still hung in the air like a schoolboy’s dare.

The question is even more striking especially if it’s being sung so beautifully by a performer who’s in the middle of suffering a psychotic break on stage. Of course it’s just an actress playing a character in the throes of a bipolar breakdown, but it’s unnerving entertainment nonetheless.

As the musical ‘Next to Normal’ progresses, you find yourself thinking about how frail the human psyche really is. Especially in this day and age of constant stresses from family, work, society, ISIL, the demagoguery and bigotry of Donald Trump, it’s hard to say how anyone can stay ‘normal’.

But there is no normal, especially when it comes to human behavior.

That’s probably the main theme of the production: that every living being on earth has their own particular set of foibles not considered ‘normal’. But the word ‘normal’ is also a catchall for so many things. Of course, extreme acts like murder is not ‘normal’ and outside the pale of societal norms, but how about the everyday garden-variety neuroses like obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD, bulimia? Do those conditions make one less normal? Or are they just ‘personality quirks’ that ‘normal’ people go through?

Take one look at how thick and heavy the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has become over the past few decades and you’d be forgiven if you think that the world is going down the toilet.

‘Next to Normal’ is just among the latest productions that call attention to the state of mental health- and while it’s set in the U.S., its themes are universal. It’s a brutally frank and funny look at the societal and familial costs of mental illness.

The human storm at the center of the play is Diana- the bipolar mother who slowly begins to unravel because of a tragic incident in the past that she can’t overcome. Her family is the picture perfect version of a suburban one. It starts off one morning with kids getting ready for school, the husband reading the paper while he eats breakfast and prepares for the work day.

Everything seems hunky dory until the mother decides to use the floor as a sandwich board. She lays out the salami and the bread on the parquet floor like it was the most natural thing in the world. Of course, even more surprising is her family’s reaction. They freeze for a second but in the next moment they’re back to their morning routines.

Diana eventually has to see her psychiatrist to ‘readjust’ her medications- which she recites in song- from Zoloft, to Klonopin, to Prozac, to various kinds of tranquilizers. It’s a dizzying amount of pills that leave her mind in a fog and completely numb to any emotion. Her therapist says mental illness is just like any disease- like diabetes and cancer. It needs to be treated with drugs and the like.

For this writer treating mental illness with medication is akin to rebuilding a damaged home. Let’s say, for example, that said house is on fire. It wouldn’t make sense for one to start repairing the home while it’s being consumed by flames.

Unfortunately public opinion and understanding of mental illness- and the drugs used to treat it- have not progressed beyond a superficial level and carries a lot of societal stigma. To put it more simply, people who are mentally ill are still somehow less than whole, broken and in need of fixing.

It’s a view that’s taken hold of Diana’s husband as he and his doctor grapple with his wife’s illness and descent into madness. But this writer can’t blame society for such indifference. There’s only so much ugliness in the world one can take in before one’s emotions start shutting down.

As Diana’s hallucinations worsen- we see an already frayed family fabric start to disintegrate. The father and daughter’s lives are sent into a tailspin and eventually, despair.

It’s painful to watch and the playwright’s words and music maximize emotional impact through some pretty devastating songs chronicling the undoing of a family. The production I saw was at the Keegan Theatre in Washington D.C.- a small venue that lends itself to an immersive experience. The pain and the maelstrom of emotions the cast members go through is magnified in such an intimate space. At the end of the play, most of the audience were either in tears or looked depressed.

But that devastation of a family, albeit make believe, and the emotional roller coaster the viewers and audience are put through are what makes the production stand head and shoulders above similar themed movies and productions.

It doesn’t go for cheap laughs or dime-store truisms or neat Hollywood resolutions (ie Silver Linings Playbook or Rain Man). It’s meant to be messy, ugly and heartbreaking just like real life.

The musical’s writers and producers didn’t flinch- presenting mental illness with all its ugliness and pain and in the process created a transcendent and transformational musical.

The production makes it clear that there are no quick fixes, and it does a very good job of raising more questions than it has answers for- much like how mental illness challenges psychiatrists and therapists to find a cure.

Most times those professionals have no answers to such challenges and the pain most families experience. Sometimes the only recourse some have is to accept the reality their loved ones face with as much dignity and magnanimity as possible. As the daughter Natalie poignantly sings, her family doesn’t have to be normal, sometimes ‘Next to Normal’ is the best some can hope for.

‘Next to Normal’ has a lot of memorable songs that highlight that challenge facing mental health professionals. But the one that encapsulates Diana’s and her family’s hopelessness is the one performed by her husband Dan, when he realizes that he has no choice but to consent to the doctor’s plan to use the most extreme procedure possible to help treat his wife.

In what I consider the musical’s most heartbreaking scene, the husband looks completely defeated as he signs a consent form for the experimental treatment. He then turns to the audience in tears and asks, ‘Who’s crazy? The one who’s half gone? ‘Who’s crazy? The one who holds on?’