What is ‘Normal?’ (with a review of next to normal)

World Marriage Day will be celebrated in my Church this weekend so Tricia and Peter have been on my mind a lot.  A very special couple in my life, they had a marriage that my husband and I deeply admire, not the least because their relationship endured in spite of (because of?) heart-wrenching tragedies.

Tricia and Peter’s first child—a baby girl named Kate—was whisked away from Tricia immediately after she was born.  The doctors said Kate had a heart condition that required close monitoring.  Tricia was sent home from the hospital but the baby was not released.  Kate died five days later.  Tricia never got to hold her and only saw her through the nursery room glass.  Kate was born on a Tuesday and for weeks after, every Tuesday Tricia stayed in bed and cried.

Their second child, a boy named after his father, was born with an intestinal obstruction.   During the corrective surgery, tiny newborn Peter lost oxygen and sustained severe brain damage.  Though he survived, hope for a normal life did not.

Tina, Tricia & Peter’s third child, became their pride and joy and she carried on her shoulders the dreams the family had for all their children.

This is the story of my aunt, uncle and cousins though I’ve changed their names for the sake of privacy.  I am more than a decade younger than Tina and grew up on the opposite coast from her family but over the years I learned their story and marveled at the love and quiet strength of my aunt and uncle.  What I remember most about my summer visits to their home is the way that it rang with laughter.

Several weeks ago I saw next to normal, the Pulitzer Prize winning drama starring Tony Award winner Alice Ripley.  The musical bears some startling similarities to my aunt and uncle’s story but with one glaring difference:  my aunt didn’t go crazy.

So I found myself wondering, when it comes to love and loss, at what point does grief turn from a healthy healing process to something abnormal?  What prevents a person from crossing that line?

My uncle didn’t love my aunt any more or less than the husband in the play.  He wouldn’t have pushed her to undergo ECT, but neither would my aunt have taken all the pills prescribed by the psychopharmacologist.  My cousin Tina probably did feel a lot like the invisible girl though.

With allusions to Flowers for Algernon and Frances Farmer and a searing contemporary score, next to normal is simply phenomenal for the way that it addresses the issue of mental illness and the lengths to which a family might go to achieve normalcy–whatever that is.  Click on the image for a clip from the 2009 Tony Awards.

next to normal

Music by Tom Kitt

Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey

Classification:  Musical

Genre:  Drama

Age Level:  Adult/Mature teens

SubjectsFamily, grief, mental illness, controversial psychiatric treatment

“A serious, substantial, dignified and musically sophisticated new American work.”  – Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

“The rarest of Broadway species:  a thoughtful, emotional musical for grown-ups.”  – Adam Feldman, TimeOut New York

Characters:  Diana, delusional bipolar depressive

Dan, her faithful husband

Gabe, her charismatic son

Natalie, her perfectionistic daughter

Henry, a musician and stoner, Natalie’s boyfriend

Dr. Madden, Diana’s psychologist with the personality of a rock star

Summary:  The story opens on “Just Another Day” with mother Diana reflecting on her “perfect loving family” but when Diana finds herself spreading bread slices across the floor as she manically makes sandwiches it’s clear that in this house “normal” means occasional emergency trips to the psychopharmacologist.  (Diana was diagnosed bipolar sixteen years ago.)  While he waits for his wife in the car, Dan wonders, “Who’s crazy—the one who can’t cope / Or maybe the one who’ll still hope?”

Meanwhile, Diana’s daughter Natalie, an accomplished pianist, finds her escape in classical music.  When Natalie meets Henry, another musician, she tries to hide her family’s secrets from him but then he introduces her to another, more dangerous way to ease her pain.  As mother and daughter spiral out of control, the men who love them desperately struggle to “get [them] back to normal…back to good.”  However, one secret continues to loom over the family.  It is alive; it is “more than memory,…[a] mystery” and until it’s confronted even a life that’s next to normal will be too far away.

Controversial content:  mature language



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