Interview by Becca Kidwell
Continuing its electrifying season, SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting now thru April 15th the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. The overwhelming demand for tickets prompted SpeakEasy to extend the run one additional week before the show even opened – an unprecedented move in the company’s 20-year history. http://www.speakeasystage.com/doc.php?section=showpage&page=normal
In the SpeakEasy production, which will mark Next to Normal’s Boston premiere, actress Kerry A. Dowling has taken on the mammoth role of Diana, playing a suburban housewife grappling with mental illness. Diana tries to be a loving wife and mother, yet her world keeps spiraling out of control. Diana’s husband Dan, played by Christopher Chew, tries to maintain stability as waves of emotions wash over the family in response to Diana’s illness. Diana bounces from doctor to doctor and medication to medication for sixteen years with varying levels of success, and ultimately is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The family swings from avoidance to confrontation in their search for help and understanding.
The role of Diana requires strength — vocally, dramatically, and physically – and since she was cast this summer, Kerry has spent many hours preparing to be fully present in the role when she takes to the stage. She has been working on the score, and has developed many habits that will allow her to be mindful when she is performing. “I’ve been trying to just be extra-diligent about going to the gym, doing the things you do when you’re trying to be healthy,” Dowling explained. In addition, to help with her breath control for singing, Kerry said she works out often on the elliptical machine, both singing the show and doing aerobic breathing “just to get the show into my body.”
As for character work, Kerry researched mental illness and also met with people who have struggled with problems similar to those of her character. She has found that her line in the show regarding the treatment of mental illness -“Not a very exact science, is it?”- rings true for many people who live with mental illness. Those she spoke with while researching the role have told Kerry that they might find treatments that work for a while, or at least make life more bearable. But some have told her that their treatment plan “works until it doesn’t.”
Paul Daigneault, the director of this production and also SpeakEasy’s Producing Artistic Director, seems to be remaining faithful to the vision of the show’s creators (composer Tom Kitt, book writer and lyricist Brian Yorkey, and director Michael Grief) by focusing on the relationships between the characters rather than the illness. Kerry explained that Daigneault told the cast, “You drop a pebble in the water, and the ripples are there forever.” She points out that it’s how the “ripples” affect the family that makes the story “more real… [and makes it possible to see] what’s going on in the relationships.”
Kerry says sees Diana’s illness “as simply being a part of who Diana is and how she just gets through every day.” When asked whether she thinks her character’s actions are crazy, the actress states, “I don’t think they are crazy. She’s just doing her thing.” Kerry adds that her character asks the questions that most of us ask at some point in our lives: “Who is normal, what is normal, and who gets to say what is normal?”
Kerry has been performing since elementary school when she first appeared in a production of Peter Pan. As for her acting career, Kerry describes her experience playing a wide range of roles as, “a slow but steady [process] of me trying to broaden the kinds of things I do combined with the intelligence of very kind and generous directors who let you try something new.”
She now gets to combine all of her previous experiences in Next to Normal, which she says has a “strong book where the story is so clear. This is the perfect musical to me in the sense that the music truly elevates because the emotion is there and you have to sing. It isn’t like “oh we’ll just have a song here. This is truly a moment when a monologue is not enough. It has to be sung to gain the full scope of the emotion. That’s what I love about this particular score.” Kerry seems excited and ready to take on this challenge with all of her heart.
Having already seen Next to Normal and experienced the power of the show, and the impact it can have, particularly on women, I asked Dowling if there are any strong women who inspire her. She immediately cited the admiration she has for her mother. “My mom is a very strong woman whom I’ve always certainly looked up to, and who has been a strong guiding force in my life.” There are also many Boston-based actresses whom Kerry admires, including Paula Plum, who will be honored at SpeakEasy Gala on March 27th along with Alice Ripley, winner of the best actress Tony Award for her performance in Next to Normal. http://www.speakeasystage.com/doc.php?section=support&page=gala-form.
You can see Kerry A. Dowling in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Next to Normal, now thru April 15th at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets or more information, please call the box-office at 617-933-8600.