|(l. to r.) Dominic Iudiciani, Keitha Brown, Michael Burke|
|Devin Pfeiffer, Hallie Walker|
|(l. to r.) Dominic Iudiciani, Jonathan Tisevich, Keitha Brown|
Rising From the Wreckage
By Tom Wachunas
“…Who's crazy? The one who's uncured, or maybe the one who's endured; the one who has treatments or the one who just lives with the pain …” - lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Could any of us ever experience hope without first floundering in despair? Or savor light without first tasting darkness? These vexing questions and their complex repercussions resonate throughout Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical from 2010, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and music by Tom Kitt. In addressing them, this deeply engaging story about the damaging effects of a mother’s mental illness on her whole family goes far beyond any gentle tugging at your heartstrings. It relentlessly yanks and twists them into torturous knots.
For this Players Guild production, Jonathan Tisevich set a very high bar for himself in his double-duty as director and actor. But he and his marvelously adroit cast members have successfully joined to become a dynamic entity. Together, they’re an astonishing family unit in their own right, telling their anguished tale with practically operatic force driven by a profound and riveting emotional intensity. They elevate Yorkey’s lyrics – which on paper might at times seem like so much cosmetic sentimentality – to a level of startling sincerity. In the process, this courageous ensemble becomes empathy itself.
The tiered set designed by Joshua Erichsen, with its pixelated images of a house and faces on panels floating in the air, is a stark metaphor for the fractured and dysfunctional life that has crippled the Goodman family for 16 years. The ever-shifting moods and textures of that life are sharply reflected in the music, which is an edgy pastiche of idioms flavored with rock, countrified melancholy, and dreamy lyricism, and all superbly articulated by the small yet plush-sounding live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons.
Diana Goodman is a housewife diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder, and hopelessly imprisoned in a futile cycle of pain management protocols including an arsenal of drugs, psychoanalysis, and even electro-convulsion treatments. The merciless progression of her disease is presented in such a way that we don’t learn about the shattering event that first triggered it until after we’ve witnessed a number of scenes with her husband Dan (Jonathan Tisevich); daughter Natalie (Hallie Walker) and her boyfriend Henry (Devin Pfeiffer); son Gabe (Dominic Iudiciani); and Doctors Madden and Fine (Michael Burke).
In the daunting central role of Diana, Keitha Brown is an uncanny embodiment of unmitigated dramatic power in the way she makes us vicarious participants in her brokenness. With exceptionally powerful singing, she draws us deep into her character’s ravaged psyche, her wounded heart, her ferocious groping for a reality that makes some sense. Yet, caught as she is in her numbing inward spiral of tears and terror, she’s not so far gone that she can’t see or dream of a reasonable way to reclaim her real self, as she reflects with tender and urgent yearning in the song, “I Miss the Mountains.”
To her role of daughter Natalie, Hallie Walker brings a poignant credibility that’s equal parts sardonic and sad. There’s an understandably bittersweet yet visceral quality to her singing when she reveals Natalie’s feelings of invisibility, as if her life at home has been erased. Her heart has been hardened by too many years of neglect from her mother who has been in turn pathologically focused on her other child, Gabe. In that role, Dominic Iudiciani is intriguingly stealthy and lithe as he basks in his mother’s constant fawning, particularly when he sings “I’m Alive” with all the panache of a rock’n’roll star.
Meanwhie, Natalie begins to find some solace in her slow-growing affection for her charismatic stoner classmate, Henry. Devin Pfeiffer conveys all of Henry’s amiable quirkiness with delightful aplomb.
And then there are Diana’s two therapists. Both are played by Michael Burke, who deftly conveys their frustrating if not humorous cluelessness in identifying the precise nature of the affliction they’re trying to treat.
Jonathan Tisevich can be both breathtaking and downright excruciating to watch in his role of Diana’s beleaguered husband, Dan. In the face of Diana’s terrible pain, he’s an eminently loyal man trying to be an anchor, a present haven of comfort and “normalcy” – whatever that means anymore. It’s a sublime depth of passion and searing expressivity that Tisevich brings to this production. As the husband and wife in this story appear to be inexorably fading away from each other, Dan’s desperate grasping at even the faintest glimmer of hope for recovery grows all the more. That’s the point of the show’s thunderous, ebullient closing number, simply called “Light” – the stuff that untangles our knotted heartstrings.
And what I most want to know is, where on earth, if on earth at all, did Tisevich go to get that singing voice of his? I’d like to visit there for a while, then come back and sing to you all about it.
All photos courtesy of Players Guild Theatre
NEXT TO NORMAL, at Canton’s Players Guild Theatre on the William G. Fry stage, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, through March 3rd / performances on Fridays & Saturdays @ 8:00 PM, Sundays @ 2:00 PM, as well as Thursday, February 28th at 8:00 PM. Tickets are $32.00 for adults, $29.00 for seniors and $25.00 for those 17 and younger / purchase online at www.playersguildtheatre.com or at the Players Guild Box Office, located in the Great Court of the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave N. Tickets may also be purchased by phone: 330-453-7617.