Theater: 'Next to Normal' at Geva provides a glimpse into mental illness

05:00 AM, Jan 06, 2013

Next to Normal is opening this week at Geva Theatre Center. (Greg Mooney/Courtesy of Alliance Theatre, Atlanta)/

Written By Catherine Roberts | Lead Local Editor/Life

If you go

Next to Normal.
When: Tuesday through Feb. 10, with performances this week at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Blvd.
Cost: Tickets start at $25.
For information: (585) 232-4382 or

You can tell when actors are in love with a play.

They talk about the words, not wanting to mess up the rhythm of the lyrics, what a privilege it is to do the show, how important the message is.

That’s what you get when you talk to the stars of Geva Theatre Center’s next production, Next to Normal.

Catherine Porter, Bob Gaynor, Cary Tedder and the rest of the cast start preview performances Tuesday, bringing a production to Rochester that received rave reviews when they performed it at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. This is Geva’s first partnership with Alliance, although director Scott Schwartz directed Rooms: A Rock Romance in 2008.

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010 for the musical, which tackles the dysfunction in a suburban family trying their best to deal with loss and mental illness. The play doesn’t gloss over the topic. Parts of the story are raw and exhausting — characters feeling alone in the midst of very intense interaction — yet it also includes the lighter good times and a sense of hope.

It’s great material. You can’t get around it,” says Gaynor, who plays Dan, a father trying to hold his family together. “Everything has a purpose, a rhythm. It’s really important to stay on the vocal devices, to stay on the mnemonic devices, to stay on the poetic devices.”

The result is a “totally cerebral show for the people who are in it, and for the people who are seeing the show, hopefully,” says Tedder, who plays son Gabe.

Porter, who plays Diana, a mother suffering from bipolar disorder, says people would come up to them after shows in Atlanta and share stories about their own families, some even seeking a diagnosis.

In New York City, where she was the standby for Diana in the last weeks of the show’s Broadway run, Porter says teenage girls would come up to her and talk about identifying with the character of Natalie, the teenage daughter who feels invisible in a family consumed with how to deal with Diana’s illness.

Porter, too, can identify with Natalie. Her sister has bipolar disorder.

It’s scary,” Porter says of playing the role. “It was scary for me to tell my mother I was playing someone who was bipolar.”

Diana’s circumstances are very different from those of Porter’s sister, who is a single artist. Yet unconsciously, Porter worked in mannerisms of her sister into her portrayal — something she says she didn’t realize until she started really thinking about why she chose to use her hands so much.

She says there must be a book in the experience, which has helped her — through the portrayal and all the research that went into it — understand the illness better.

At the heart of the message is how a family learns the right ways to deal with mental illness and how they try to change the dynamics, even as the audience learns more about the events that led to such a dysfunctional situation.

At one time, Diana was an architect with a bright career and a young, flourishing family. Now, says Porter, “she’s just trying to function, and she’s had a lot of things happen through the course of her life that have affected her very deeply.”

During the time period of the play, Diana is having “a particularly rough ride, and we’re just watching her cope, watching her family try to cope with her. And it’s a very interesting process — for all of us, too,” says Porter.

Dan “has all the right intentions, just not the right methods,” says Gaynor, who has a lot of sympathy for his very earnest character. “Dan revels in the great moments. When the moments are tough, he goes into work mode” to try to fix the situation.

Alliance partnered with several groups in Atlanta for talkbacks and programs to complement the play.

Geva also plans to have some programs with organizations such the East House and Rochester chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Gregory J. Soehner, president of the East House, says plays like Next to Normal can raise the discourse surrounding mental illness.

I think it proves that if you take on a serious issue like this, an issue that’s been underground for a while, it can still be a popular success, a critical success,” Soehner says. “And I think pop culture is crucial.”

The East House sponsors the Reel Mind film series and has sponsored a one-man show at Blackfriars Theatre.

In the field, we talk to ourselves all the time and have discourse, but it’s very limited,” he says. “The scope of exposure to these issues and the discourse it stimulates to help people understand the realities around mental illnesses” is key to raising public awareness, fighting discrimination that patients face in housing and employment and, ultimately, public funding for research and treatment.

The fact that Next to Normal focuses on a family will stimulate talking points, Soehner says. Mental illness affects a nuclear family, as in the play, but also extended family get-togethers. And that’s true even if it started a generation ago and was kept secret but is still part of the dynamics of an event today.

A crucial talking point is understanding that these are people like you and me, and they’re dealing with a disease,” Soehner says. “The person is in the middle of it. The family is in the middle of it.”