Who knew a dramatic musical could cause so much emotion in an audience member? Not me, and I have to say I was quite surprised by it. I found myself experiencing everything from sadness and grief to laughter and joy. This play pulled at my heart strings like no other live performance I have ever seen.
Last Saturday I had the opportunity to participate in a panel that fielded questions and discussed the challenges of mental illness. During the hour, struggles faced by a person living with mental illness as well as the difficulties a care giver confronts while trying to support a person with a diagnosis were addressed. Unlike many of the panel discussions I have participated in where we have spoken mostly to people currently involved in the mental health community, this group was much more diverse and consequently less informed about the illnesses, treatments, stigma and recovery. It was a fascinating discussion and hopefully enlightening to those in attendance.
Afterwards, I was able to watch the Broadway Musical now playing at the Arizona Theater Company, “Next to Normal.” The play exquisitely tells the story of a family’s struggle with mental illness. In this case, the Mother is struggling with Bipolar Disorder and the rest of the family is doing the best they can to cope with the unpredictable scenarios that are faced on a daily basis. When Mom is feeling hypo-manic everything is great. But, inevitably either the bottom falls out and Mom becomes horribly depressed or just as awful, Mom becomes manic and repercussions can be just as devastating. The Dad misses the exuberant young woman he first fell in love with. The teenage daughter feels un-noticed and at times unloved by an overwhelmed Dad and an ill Mom. As for the son, well……I’ll leave his story out of this blog as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone going to see this play.
Suffice it to say that this dramatic musical tells a complicated, absorbing tale of life in a family with mental illness. After all, when someone in the family have a serious illness, everyone is effected, no matter if it’s a physical illness or a mental illness. The narrative, told almost exclusively with song, is compelling and realistic. Having experienced mental illness in my family, it touched me as if my best friend was sharing her family life with me. The author has great insight and the actors were amazing.
The first steps in changing attitudes about mental illness are awareness and education. This production does an excellent job in demystifying the reality of mental illness. One in four families are effected by mental illness and mainstream media, even Broadway musicals, can have a huge impact on advancing that goal.