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Incline’s “Next to Normal” Poignantly Depicts the Impact of Mental Illness

Review by Laurel Humes of Next to Normal: Incline Theatre

Warsaw Federal Incline Theater has staged a powerful production of Next to Normal, the prize-winning rock musical about a family afflicted by mental illness.

It is the mother, Diana, who is struggling with bipolar disorder. But her husband, Dan, and teenage children, Natalie and Gabe, are all victims, as she swings from manic to depressive.

We follow Diana through medical treatments and psychotherapy. We follow her family through caregiver fatigue, anger and resentment in their quest to have a life that is not perfect, just “next to normal.”

Not your lighthearted musical. But see it for the insightful book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the compelling plot twists, and the striking performances by all six cast members. And because Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The show is an almost completely sung-through musical, with nearly 40 songs. Because the lyrics are essential to the story, it was upsetting opening night when the off-stage band sometimes overpowered the singers. Certainly this can be corrected in future performances.

Lesley Hitch needs all her considerable acting skills to show us a Diana whose emotions, because of the disease and effects of treatment, stretch from loving to unfeeling, disappointing her family time and time again. One of Hitch’s most powerful and poignant songs, “I Miss the Mountains,” comes when she throws away the pills meant to steady her moods but have left her numb. “I miss the mountains, I miss my life.”

Brian Anderson portrays husband Dan as a gentle and kind caregiver to his wife through the 16 years of her disease that may have resulted from a tragic event they shared. Anderson gives us a man who is mostly burying his own feelings, which makes the moments they do emerge more moving. “Who’s crazy?” he sings. “The one who’s half-gone? Or maybe the one who holds on.”

Leslie Kelly is dynamic as high school daughter, Natalie. The typical teenage contradictions of needing and rejecting her parents is so sad because her parents can’t be there for her – all the focus is on her mother’s condition.

So we watch Natalie seek a way to numb her pain, maybe music performance, maybe drugs. The most promising is a new boyfriend (Elliott Handkins, in a fine performance), if she can keep herself from pushing away this person who clearly loves her.

The final member of the family is son Gabe, who is at the center of the plot but whose story can’t be revealed without spoiling a plot twist. In the hands of Tanner Gleeson, Gabe is forceful and touching, and maybe a bit unintentionally evil. Among Gleeson’s best moments are the songs “I’m Alive” and “There’s a World.”

Derek Harper rounds out the cast in multiple roles as Diana’s doctors. Harper (a pharmacist in real life!) is mostly given dry, unemotional lines, but watch for his breakout moments as “rock star” doctor.

Scenic designer Brett Bowling and lighting designer Denny Reed have created a setting that beautifully enhances the arcs of the story. The family home set is primarily a series of staircases, useful for escaping one another. One side of the house outline leans in; will the house itself collapse with the family? The lighting follows the characters’ moods, exuberant to bleak.

Next to Normal is briskly directed by Matthew Wilson, who has led his cast to flesh out every nuance of meaning and certainly to give everything to their performances.

I hope this show gets the audience it deserves.

Next to Normal runs Wednesdays-Sundays through Oct. 21 at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, 801 Matson Place, in the Incline District of East Price Hill. For tickets, call 513-241-6550 or go to www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.