Musical examines the toll and hope brought on by mental illness

Every actor has his or her own way of preparing for a role.

But how do you prepare to play a person with a debilitating mental illness, who is also crippled by trauma and grief? And how do you portray the family members tethered to this person, who are also dealing with grief and guilt?

And how do you do it without turning in performances that tip into stereotype or appear inauthentic?

This was the challenge for the cast of the Alliance Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical “Next to Normal.” The play officially opened Wednesday and runs through Nov. 11.

Directed at the Alliance by Scott Schwartz, the rock musical deals frankly with a disease that plagues many families: depression. It is also an exploration of trauma, the resulting despair and the long, perhaps never-ending, climb out of it. Yet, somehow, the play signals that hope and measures of healing are never out of reach.

It is a beautifully complicated play, with an ambiguous yet realistic message to convey. To help the actors home in on their portrayals, the Alliance brought in a small group of psychiatrists and psychotherapists from Emory University to work with them. Because the play deals with a suburban family in the throes of dysfunction, Marianne Celano, a family therapist, was one of the health-care professionals who spent time coaching the cast and crew. To prepare, she read the script and spent time thinking about the dynamics of this particular family, one Celano said has echoes of real ones.

“Whenever you read lyrics without the music, it’s missing something, kind of like looking at a black and white photograph of the Grand Canyon,” Celano said. “With this play, the lyrics were so good, I was able to get it even without the music. So the way I understood it was that it’s better for a family to live honestly and genuinely, next to normal, than to live dishonestly and disingenuously, normal. That rings true to me.”

Because the script is relatively spare, Celano said the actors asked lot of questions during the prep session about whether their characters’ actions were behavior she’d seen in patients. They wanted to know what that looked like and felt like. For Celano, because she is a family therapist, she was also concerned that the family dynamic be portrayed realistically.

“If you have one person who is so dysfunctional and consumed with grief, then you have another person who is overcompensating and taking care of them, that takes a lot of time and energy and you have little energy left over for anyone else,” Celano said.

Catherine Porter plays the lead character, Diana. Porter was the understudy for the Diana role in the 2009 Broadway production of the musical. But to her recollection, the level of instruction she was given back then was minimal regarding the physical manifestations of mental illness and the real life impact the disease can have on a family. The emphasis instead was on learning her lines quickly and making sure that, when she did have to step in for shows, her performance didn’t deviate too much from the lead actress’s.

So Porter was surprised and heartened by the level of preparation, or dramaturgy, the Alliance afforded her and the other cast members.

“After that session with Marianne Celano I thought, ‘I’d absolutely hire her if I needed her,’ ” Porter said. “And she was thorough in talking about how a character like the son, Gabe, might actually feel, in order to give him more humanity. She was trying to fill in the gaps with this family.”

Celano also gave the cast members what essentially amounted to syllabus of books, articles, and essays about mental illness and grief, including “Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface,” by Martha Manning, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” by Andrew Solomon, and “A Beautiful Mind,” by Sylvia Nasar.

Perhaps most helpful to Porter was the therapist’s suggestion that she watch You Tube videos. In this era of reality television, where plenty of people post online videos of their every waking moment, it is not difficult to find clips of people in the midst of a manic depressive, or bi-polar, episode. Some of the videos cut close for Porter. She has an older sister who has a bi-polar/schizophrenic disorder, and is much less functioning than the character Porter portrays, Porter said.

“She has a strong, vivid inner life, but she can’t see the outer world,” Porter said. “She has never been able to be level.”

And like the daughter character, Natalie, in real life growing up Porter feared her sister’s mental illness and to a degree resented the toll it took on her parents and the amount of time they spent dealing with her sister’s illness.

“You feel like you’re shortchanged,” Porter said. “But my sister got so much attention because she needed it. And I felt like I had to be sane and healthy for my parents because they needed me.”

These are the emotions embedded in the musical. During a recent preview performance of the play, Celano was in the audience.

Afterward, she was among those who stood for an ovation. She and some of her colleagues will lead a limited number of audience discussions before and after some performances.

“Had this play had an entirely simple and happy ending tied up neatly with a bow, it would have had less legitimacy or accuracy to me,” she said. “So because (there is) hope mixed with despair, to me helps the story ring true.”

She even laughed a bit about one of the characters, a psychotherapist deemed a “rock star” for his positive impact on patients.

“Nobody ever calls me a rock star,” Celano said, laughing.

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