Next to Normal, directed by Christina Westenberger, is being presented by the Williamsburg Players as a six-performance special event in proud support of the Williamsburg chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (or NAMI).
NAMI is a support, education and advocacy organization for and by individuals with serious mental illnesses, their families and friends.
The theatre is also teaming up with NAMI-Williamsburg for a talk-back following the Sunday matinee performances. These talk-backs will be hosted by mental health professionals Joseph R. Lee, LCSW, Jungian Psychoanalyst and President-Philadelphia Jung Institute and Edward J Whitaker, LCSW of Rock Landing Psychological Group. They will give their insight and answer any questions the audience may have. Drs. Lee and Whitaker will also provide resources on mental illness to those interested. The cast will be present to answer questions as well.
Next to Normal, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and three Tony awards, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, set to music by Tom Kitt, is a contemporary musical that was first produced in 2008. The material is powerfully transportive, particularly when the performers are uniformly capable of making it so, which the Williamsburg Players’ cast are.
The story centers on Diana (Rani Wachter), who has long been diagnosed as manic-depressive and given manifold medications. As we watch, she undergoes other psychiatric therapies. Pill bottles line her medicine cabinet, office and hospital visits fill her weeks. Her psycho-pharmacologist (Andrew Schwalm) keeps her well-stocked. Eventually, a new practitioner (Schwalm again) tries various drug-free treatments on her. Her husband, Dan (Jeffrey Seyller), is forbearing and stoic, but their high-achieving daughter, Natalie (Sadie Westbrock), seems about to crack. Natalie feels ignored, simultaneously worrying that she might likewise develop mental illness, so she anesthetizes herself with mom’s stash of drugs and nights of clubbing. She’s so numbed that she can’t quite understand why Henry (Jack Cherry), a boy with a crush on her, patiently and devotedly hangs around. Diana seems to ignore Natalie in favor of Natalie’s brother, Gabe (Steven Moeslein). He’s clearly Diana’s favorite child and in ways her best friend.
“Every character is dealing with some sort of battle,” says Westenberger in the Virginia Gazette. “I hope that we’ve created a show where we’ve looked at it honestly. We’re doing this right.”
“The message is so powerful,” says Jeffrey Seyller. As for the partnership with NAMI, the theatre is excited about it. Carmen Andreoli of NAMI-Williamsburg says they’re excited as well. “We’re thrilled with the partnership.”
I had the privilege to sit in on a bit of their dress rehearsal and what I saw was pretty darn good. As I entered the theatre I was greeted by the eager cast. They were bubbling with excitement about being able to present this show to an audience. I talked with a few of the cast members who explained their characters. One in particular, Sadie Westbrock, who plays Natalie, said, “It’s a great role. Natalie is definitely going through something. She tries to be perfect to gain her mother’s attention but fails because of her mother’s mental illness.”
They also gave me a tour of the set, which at the time I saw it was not in it’s final phase but I could tell was going to be fantastic. A thrust has been added which brings the audience into the show, more specifically into Dianna’s head, creating a more intimate feeling and separating her moments of distress from the rest of the business on stage. This design element makes a huge impact.
If what I was able to see is any indication of what this show has become since it opened last weekend, you don’t want to miss it.
“Give me pain, if that’s what’s real/It’s the price we pay to feel,” go the lyrics of the finale. The characters are beginning to recognize, understand and cope with their feelings. “Next to Normal” certainly helps its audiences get in touch with theirs.
Williamsburg Players’ Next to Normal concludes its run this weekend July 14 -16. Fri & Sat. 8:00pm, Sun 2:00pm. A talkback will follow this Sunday’s matinee. Tix: $20 Reg, $18 Seniors, $16 Military, $14 Students. Call (757) 229-0431 or click here for reservations.