As cast members of Flowertown Players' season opener “Next to Normal” can attest, there’s a lot in the opening sequence. People who rush about their over-scheduled daily lives can relate to the first song, “Just Another Day.” Whether it’s making sure lunches are packed, the trash is taken out, the dog is fed or the dishes are done, it can all sometimes feel impossible to manage.
For Diana, the musical’s central figure, played by Sarah Daniel who is herself a working mother, the demands of everyday life, kids and marriage are further complicated by the fact that she is suffering from an undiagnosed mental health disorder.
The dizzying morning rush reaches its apex and comes to a screeching halt when Diana, dutifully reciting pick-up and drop-off schedules for her kids, is discovered by her family on the kitchen floor. It’s the first sign that, despite her seemingly indomitable resolve to juggle it all, something is very wrong.
The 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical highlights the disorienting effects of Diana’s worsening bipolar disorder on her family and explores themes of grief, depression, suicide and the underbelly of suburban life. It’s a bold choice says Flowertown’s Erik Brower, for whom “Next to Normal” constitutes two firsts: his first time directing a musical, and his first time directing a show on Flowertown’s main stage.
“Usually for our theater, and theaters in the area, this is the time for big flashy musicals and big ensemble numbers like 'Oklahoma,' " he says. "This is going to be a little different. I think it’s just edgy enough so it won’t be jarring for our audiences. We wanted to challenge them, and ourselves as performers.”
Brower says that it felt like the right time, too, given the national dialogue on mental health issues. An estimated 4.4 percent of U.S. adults will experience bipolar disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s a problem that has gained visibility with celebrities such as Kanye West, Demi Lovato, Mariah Carey and Katherine Zeta Jones going public in recent years about their struggles with bipolar disorder.
But the topic sometimes still can be taboo.
“A lot of people seem to look down on it," Brower says. "There’s still a stigma attached to mental health issues. And I think this show, especially with the title, 'Next to Normal,' forces audiences to question what is normal. Dealing with grief, dealing with depression and dealing with bipolar disorder, these things are normal. Everyone sees the world through a different lens and we’re doing a lot in this show to make sure the audience can see life through the lens of this woman.”
In the process of preparing for the show, Brower spoke with people who have struggled with mental health issues, noting some of the expressions that were repeatedly used, including “hitting rock bottom” and experiencing a “spiral downward.” For the Flowertown production, the up-and-down nature of bipolar disorder is represented by two fire poles incorporated into the two-story set.
“I thought it would be cool to add in these elements so you could always see, at all times, when Diana’s up high and when she’s on a downswing emotionally. We were rehearsing a song called “Catch Me I’m Falling,” and with our show you can literally see her fall.”
With little dialogue, “Next to Normal” relies almost entirely on challenging musical numbers to propel the story forward, Brower says. “All six of our performers are amazing singers and actors. So that’s half the job. That makes it easy.”
“Next to Normal” runs at Flowertown Players Aug. 10-26, kicking off the Summerville-based company's 43rd season, which includes gems like “The Crucible” in October. Visit flowertownplayers.org for more information and tickets.