Imperfect Healing: “next to normal”

Next to Normal – Highlights from Central Square Theater on Vimeo.

Presented by Central Square Theatre and The Front Porch Arts Collective
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Direction and Choreography by Pascale Florestal
Voice and Music Direction by Katie Bickford
Intimacy Direction by Sean Patrick Gibbons
Featuring Cortlandt Barrett, Diego Cintrón, Ricardo “Ricky” Holguin, Sherée Marcelle, Dashawn McClinton, Anthony Pires, Jr.

May 30 – June 30, 20024
Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139

Review by Kate Lew Idlebrook

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Central Square Theater’s next to normal is a mother struggling with the daily grind of managing her family’s busy lives. A father worried he isn’t doing enough to support his wife and children. A teenage daughter who wants her parents to truly see her. A son who is fighting not to be left behind. The whole Goodman family insisting that it’s all “gonna be good.” It’s all just so relatable.

Theatergoers will identify with the Goodmans and the nuanced performances of the actors in Central Square Theater’s stellar production of next to normal. I sat between my teenage daughter and my mother and we each walked away deep in thought. It’s a rare show that can touch three generations.

The story tackles the tricky subject of mental illness. Too many works of fiction villainize the ill person to underscore the impact on loved ones. This script, however, balances the struggle and humanity of everyone involved. The heavy weight of the subject matter is eased by nicely spaced humor, and the engaging music and song lyrics add depth and freshness.

At first, next to normal doesn’t seem a label to fit this family of four, but you quickly discover that there is more going on beneath the surface. Diana (Sherée Marcelle), the mother, is just barely managing her bipolar symptoms while the whole family tries to convince themselves it’s “just another day.” Like Dianna, Dan (Anthony Pires, Jr.), the father, spends all his energy hoping and praying he can do enough to hold everything together. Natalie (Cortlandt Barrett), the teenage daughter, wants to be adored like her brother, and turns to her music for order and recognition. They proceed pretending there’s nothing to worry about, but a trauma from the past continues to haunt the family, upending their tenuous hold.

Next to Normal – Central Figures with Pascale Florestal and Lee Mikeska Gardner from Central Square Theater on Vimeo.

In this production, everything from the set to the music to the performances is thoughtful and nuanced. Elements of the set gradually reveal their meaning as the play progresses, and if you pay attention, you will see the cast responding and playing off each other in subtle, but important, ways.

Marcelle’s depiction of Diana’s struggles to manage her illness and cope with her past stands out. Barrett walks the perfect teenage line of bitterness, snark, and caring as Natalie, who is hoping desperately for those around her to notice the “Invisible Girl.” From the opening notes to the final ones, you will find yourself aching for this family and hoping right along with them that they will find their way to somewhere next to normal.

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