Up from normality

Next to Normal’ at the Arden (2nd review)

3 minute read
Rachel Camp as Natalie, James Barry as Dan: Suffering boobs. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
Rachel Camp as Natalie, James Barry as Dan: Suffering boobs. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
"Insanity is wonderful, if it can be controlled," went a popular mantra in the rebellious '60s. In those hallucinogenic days, reaching the outer boundaries of our cognitive perceptions was not merely accepted but required.

Lurking in the background, of course, was the larger society and its conformist conventions of the '50s. Guidelines were deemed necessary to sustain a vibrant consumer culture. In the age of The Organization Man, teamwork and cheerful good manners were the dominant values.

So as time progressed, Americans became less tolerant of unconventional behavior. Next to Normal, a thoughtful musical at the Arden, takes a not too subtle swipe at Americans' obsession with being "normal."

Granted, Diana— a middle-class housewife with mourning issues— has her difficult moments, just as people with high blood pressure get headaches. But when she refuses to take the drugs that render her a walking zombie, the mad scientists over at mental rehab decide to zap her memory with impairing volts of electricity. Who's crazy here?

The real culprit in this story isn't Diana's inability to set boundaries but the mental health industry's lack of them.

Drugged beyond feeling

As a young mother, Diana lost her son. According to her first psychiatrist, Dr. Madden, this traumatic experience brought on a "condition."

Diana's husband, Dan, is a suffering boob who would drive Mother Teresa off a cliff. He seems to devote all his time trying to turn Diana into a perfect Mrs. Cleaver; he's only happy in his marriage when Diana is too drugged up to feel anything. Their daughter, Natalie, falls by the wayside and seems to exist to act as an enabler in his quest for a "normal" life style.

Because Diana can't relinquish her relationship with her dead infant son (who died years earlier, and now reappears as the teenager he would be, had he lived), Dan believes she's delusional. When Diana throws a birthday party for her son, Natalie and Dan go into a tailspin. They rush her to Dr. Madden, who concludes that all memory of this persistent specter must be erased from Diana's mind forever. He sends her for shock treatments, explaining, "She'll have familiar memory loss also, but that's to be expected."

Ruining the party

Time out! After 17 years of "therapy," the only way Diana's husband and doctor can deal with the persistent presence of the son is to deny his existence?

Are we talking about Diana's reality, or her family's expectations of what it should be?

Why should psychiatry, under the auspices of drug companies, be allowed to ruin Diana's happy birthday party? Does this party— not to mention the cake Diana baked— threaten anybody?

This family doesn't need a psychiatrist— it needs a medium to help sort things out. Perhaps, after a few sessions with a fortuneteller, Dan and Natalie will begin to realize that Diana's excessive grief is holding her son back from advancing into the universe.

Whatever. What we have in Next To Normal is a marital relationship between husband and wife that's going nowhere— and it takes the allegedly "crazy" person— Diana— to figure this out. In the end, Diana runs home to her mother— which she should have done years before— and Dan runs off for psychiatric sessions. As well he should.♦

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

Next to Normal. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Music by Tom Kitt. Terrence J. Nolen directed. Through November 4, 2012 at the Arden Theater’s F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. Second St. (215) 922-1122 or

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