In its current production, “Next to Normal,” the Summit Theatre Group shines a light on the subject of mental illness and shares a message particularly poignant today.
Winner of a 2010 Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards, the 2008 rock musical explores mental illness inside what appears to be an archetypically “normal” suburban family.
The story centers on the mother, Diana, who struggles with an escalating bipolar disorder and the effects the illness and treatments have on her husband and two children. The play also addresses grief, suicide and drug abuse — all timely issues.
“This show is 10 years old but is very relevant now,” said Ginger Chyree, Summit Theatre Group’s company manager. “It speaks to the reality inside many families today when one member is struggling with mental illness and the effect it has on every relationship around them.
“The thing about art, in general, is it imitates life. Artists tend to write and develop work relevant to the world, and this is truth being brought to life.”
Gabriel Livingston is directing the production.
“Gabriel is a recent college graduate with a degree in directing. He brought a lot of fervor and passion to making this production relevant to our audience and looking beyond the stigma of mental illness and its stereotype,” Chryee said. “He was sincere and intentional about presenting real-life characters where the audience sees and experiences their struggles firsthand.”
Livingston spent two years studying and preparing to direct the show before presenting his production concept to Chyree and STG.
“First and foremost, the musical is about mental health, not as an issue, but about the people it affects,” he said. “(Brian) Yorkey and (Tom) Kitt wrote the show to be relatable and accessible.
“In our production, we wanted to create three-dimensional people, and the actors had to find what their characters were after. Character development had to go deeper and wider than the illness.”
Though each of the show’s characters brings unique points of view and musical influence to the stage, “Next to Normal” is told primarily through the lens of Diana, who is played by Alecia Stultz.
Diana endures inner and outer changes and challenges as she undergoes a variety of therapies.
“As a society, we’re seeing more and more mental health issues, and many people don’t know how to personally handle them. They internalize the issues and channel their energy into other things,” Stultz said
“This is what Diana does until she realizes she has to do something different. She then finds the strength to take control of her life and help herself.”
The issues examined in “Next to Normal” are sobering and serious. However, the show offers plenty of laughter, optimism and hope, as well as an upbeat musical score.
“This show has moments of high entertainment,” Livingston said. “You’re going to laugh and you’re going to cry.
“There’s something for everyone in this play: Music everyone will like, and something everyone will learn. The most brilliant thing the musical does is paint a picture of a family that we can identify with. We can connect. After all, we come to the theater to feel something and to learn about others.”
“Next to Normal” runs June 15-16 and 22-24 at the MCC-Longview Cultural Arts Center, 500 SW Longview Road. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m., except for June 24, which is a 2:30 p.m. matinee. For tickets, visit summittheatre.org or the Lee’s Summit HyVee stores.