By Jonny Bones
VANCOUVER – How do we handle grief and loss? To what limits do we push ourselves, to ignore the ugly truths in our lives? These are the questions that West Moon Theatre’s production of Next To Normal asks us. Directed by Chris Lam, featuring a live band, and a cast of only six, the stripped-down production hits the audience with an emotional impact in the first act and does not let up.
As the production progresses, we are introduced to our cast of characters: Diana, our main protagonist, a pill-popping mid-life house wife, portrayed by Lee Mckeown, who is holding on to life by the seams while struggling with her mental grief. Dan, her blindly loving husband, played by Jeremy Leroux, who believes that with the right prescription, his life and his wife can get back to normal. Jennifer Shannen as Natalie, their distant teenage daughter, who longs for recognition and tries to find it in everything from her studies to her mother’s prescription bottles. Her jazz-loving stoner boyfriend, Henry, played by Max Kim, who is Natalie’s only life line and voice of reason. Sean Anthony in a double role as Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, a medical representation of both sides of the pharmaceutical coin, and finally Gabe, the haunting memory of Dan and Diana’s dead child, depicted by Frankie Cottrell.
The story itself dives into the depths of loss, sorrow, mental illness, and the levels we can fall to as people when we ignore the truth and try to push away emotions or numb our pain with prescriptions. It touches on all these subjects, as well as illuminating the vicious cycle of learned behavior that can be passed down from parent to child, causing a pattern that, if left alone, can destroy a family for generations. The script, penned by Bryan Yorkey, is brilliant, thought provoking, gripping, and devastating. Shannen shines in a stand out performance as Natalie. She is able to bring an intensity and honesty to the role that is impossible to deny, and her vocal power and clarity is hard not to notice. Kim’s portrayal of Henry is simplistic but lovingly memorable. While Mckeown, Leroux, Anthony, and Cottrell ground the production in solid performances that carry the narrative and explores the dark depths of the plot.
As an honest and refreshing take on the subject matter, Next to Normal hits a sweet spot of balancing strong, lyrically driven rock melodies, with deep and often uncomfortable realities that are all too present in our society today. There are powerful lessons to be learned here and hopefully those lessons, much like the memory of Gabe, are never forgotten.
Next To Normal, March 12 at Studio 16