Apr 28, 2009

Posted by in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Getting Too Next to Normal

Getting Too Next to Normal

Last week I went to see a musical which just opened on Broadway, Next to Normal.  Let me get the theatre critic impulse out of the way – the show is brilliant.  It is an uncompromising look at the effects a bi-polar disorder has not just on the patient mother but on her suburban family.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it upbeat, it is nowhere near as oppressive as one might expect from the subject matter.   While there is no “happy” ending (I don’t think there ever is in this scenario) the play is far from bleak. In part that is attributable to its resounding rock tinged soundtrack. It has a lot in common with Rent.  The music is emotive while the lyrics can be sardonic.   However, unlike Rent the audience is not just asked to play spectator to the chaos, they are dragged along for the emotional roller coaster ride.   And like a good roller coast shrieks and giggles find themselves being eked out uncomfortably in succeeding breaths.

  Alice Ripley, who plays the mother (Diana Goodman), is magnetic and vulnerable, alternating between helpless and dangerous.  I’ve never been exposed to prolonged mental illness but through her characterization I get how disorienting it must be.  She humanizes her character’s travails and displays a level of courage that transcends that displayed by those around her.   She should be a shoo-in for a Tony Award.  But that is not what I want to talk about.

For me the fascination with the play is the hold her illness has on those around her who are “well.”   Her husband Dan (played by J Robert Spencer, formerly of Jersey Boys, her daughter and  Natalie  (Jennifer Damiano) are capable of making choices but all those choices are reactive.  Dan is driven by guilt and a fear of stepping into an unfamiliar world of normalcy.  Natalie is driven by shame and anger.  There is a lot of “what about me?”  But she revels in the power of the pleading question rather than taking ownership of the possibilities in the answer.  They each opt for a different degree of numb to tolerate the circumstance.

I guess the point I am trying to make is I don’t understand how easily people allow themselves to be captive to someone else’s tragedy.  No one caused Diana’s illness, yet they each willingly embrace it as their own.  How many times have we held back from breaking up with someone because we didn’t want to hurt them?  But how is enabling a dead relationship helping any one?  As cold as it might seem, there comes a time when you need to sever the tie and unteather yourself from the burden of someone else’s misfortune.  That doesn’t mean don’t be compassionate.  It means understand what you can and can’t do. Sometimes in playing the martyr you actually make it more difficult for the real victim to make the right choices.  I am trying mightily not to give away the ending of the play but if you see it, and I strongly recommend you do, you’ll get what I am saying.  None of us were put on this earth to “save” anyone other than ourselves.  We might not like how someone else’s story ends but we need to respect that it is their story.  We need to let go of our own arrogance that leads us to believe that we either have the wisdom or the power to decide or do what is right for them. And while it is okay to empathize with their struggles it is not okay to co-opt them as your own.  It should be okay to acknowledge that you have no idea what someone is going through and have no idea how to begin to help them.  I suspect that would be a freeing sentiment for all involved.

Anyway go see Next to Normal at the  Booth theatre.  You will get what I am trying to say.

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