“Next to Normal” is a snapshot of a family moored by tragedy. It peels back the curtain on an average American home to reveal a woman grasping to maintain a tenuous grip on reality and how her family struggles to sustain their own identities in the face of an uncertain future.
The notion of pairing the upbeat with the somber is nothing new — spoonful of sugar to help the medicine down and all. The show revolves around Diana, who, in the years following a shattering life upheaval, feels herself drifting further from reality, while Dan endeavors to continue having all the answers. Meanwhile, their daughter Natalie aches to be truly seen and heard by her family, while slowly coming to realize that someone does recognize her for all that she is.
Where “Normal” falters, however, is with the music. Despite the confident playing and evocative vocal performances, the songs just aren’t that memorable, which is a shame since the lyrics delve extraordinarily deep into the minds of different family members struggling with the effects of mental illness. But even the narrative resonance of a song like “I’m Alive,” a touchstone of the entire performance, only vaguely registers due to its maudlin melody and near ham-fisted chorus.
In the hands of a lesser company, “Normal” might have been undone by the middling tunes, but under the direction of Chad Badgero, it’s still a solid show. A sparsely effective two-level set (even if the constant repositioning of the background panels, painted to depict the house’s outline, didn’t accomplish much) allowed actors Sandy Sykes and Matthew Eldred to shine. As the mother, Diana, Sykes delivers a restrained performance, capturing the resigned self-awareness of someone who knows they aren’t as they should be.
Eldred’s depiction of the steadfast father, Dan, hinges on his paper-thin stoicism, and he conveys a lifetime of pain and sacrifice. In danger of being completely overshadowed by their costars’ chemistry, Emily McKay (as daughter Natalie) and Adam Woolsey (as her suitor Henry) find the emotional core of their adolescent relationship. it might be more honest than anything you’ll see this year. It might be the most honest portrayal of young love you’ll see this year.
A powerful, poignantly relevant show, Peppermint Creek’s take on “Next to Normal” is essential for anyone wanting a truthful glimpse into the painful — yet ultimately hopeful — wake of mental illness.
Just don’t expect to be humming on the way out.
“Next to Normal”
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.
Through July 20
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
$18/$13 students and seniors
6025 Curry Lane, Lansing