Any and every one us in the audience for Alan Paul’s penetrating production of Next to Normal at Round House might know a woman like the show’s Diana Goodman. Maybe you’re related to her, or see her in the mirror.
You can see the truth of her embodied in the brilliant performance of Tracy Lynn Olivera, a D.C. theater treasure making her Round House debut as the suburban wife and mom struggling against grief, depression, and mental illness to find even some semblance of stability.
Soldiering by Diana’s side, and soaring alongside her through the Tony-winning score by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, is her husband Dan, devoted yet often conflicted, portrayed by the equally esteemed Kevin S. McAllister.
So, Round House crowds are doubly blessed to see and hear such challenging roles essayed by those with the due talents, conviction, and gravity to send us scaling the raw, ragged mountains of emotion brought forth in Yorkey’s deftly plotted script.
Olivera and McAllister marry beautifully as onstage partners in Diana and Dan’s complicated, trying existence. Their bustling family dynamic, with teenage son Gabe (Lucas Hinds Babcock) and daughter Natalie (Sophia Early), is credibly set in the first number, “Just Another Day,” aided by effective intentional misdirection. They might seem like everything is “normal,” until the scene reveals Diana’s tenuous hold on reality.
Wilson Chin’s striking scenic design suggests that liminal space between reality and what’s happening in Diana’s head. In her tangible world, pill bottles spill to the floor, and doors slam with force. In “I Miss the Mountains,” she tries to toss out her meds and live with the peaks and valleys.
But in her thoughts, she’s haunted by pain she can’t process. Though Paul offers acute insight into her experience, employing a wall of video panels, featuring sometimes trippy projections designed by Nicholas Hussong.
The screens become a means of amplifying all the characters’ feelings, as well as the tension of Diana’s encounters with extreme medical intervention. The visual spectacle can distract from vital beats of song or dialogue, but the device adds a subtle tinge of horror that suits aspects of this probing portrait.
And throughout, Paul navigates the cast gracefully through delicate transitions from an average family’s quotidian rhythms into the dark, imaginary caverns of Diana’s struggles.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her struggles reverberate through all their lives. Yet, she maintains a sense of humor, exemplified in the charmingly sardonic “My Psychopharmacologist and I.” As said psychopharmacologist, Calvin McCullough contributes his own deft comic timing to the number.
That song pairs with Dan’s more serious “Who’s Crazy,” with him contemplating his own struggles in this marriage, and McAllister beautifully relaying a spouse’s sense of duty and exhaustion. As their daughter, spiraling into her own chaos of drugs and confusion, Early captures Natalie’s justifiable defiance, alongside her deeply felt sadness.
The whole family’s understandably exhausted, while, paradoxically, the cast — including Ben Clark, who shines as Natalie’s amorous classmate Henry, in his “Hey” duets with Early — must tap into wells of stamina to put across Kitt and Yorkey’s challenging score and emotionally taxing narrative.
Probing universal truths about grief and depression via the very specific circumstances of one loving family, this Next to Normal pierces the heart, provokes vital conversation, and brings powerhouse performance and music to our ears.
Next to Normal (★★★★☆) runs through March 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md. Tickets are $46 to $88, with discount options available, including free tickets for students ages 13 through college, and 2-For-1 Tuesdays.
Call 240-644-1100, or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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