Directed by Joanne Gordon for Cal Rep, "Next To Normal," with music by Tom Kitt, and story and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, tells the story of a family's reaction to a mother's mental illness. The mental illness itself is a reaction to the death of an infant son. In well- enacted (and -sung) detail, it shows how hard it to diagnose much less treat the disease. It shows the effect it has on family members, who in turn have to wrestle with their own demons. Ultimately, though, it's about the persistence of a tragic memory and the options one has to deal with it. The choices are tough, if not impossible. You can medicate and electroshock it, though, as shown here, the cure is worse than the disease. You can kindle it, though it eats you alive. Or you can shunt it aside, and hope it goes away. The number of options makes it clear that any definition of normal is a conditional term.
In fits and turns, the story is outlandish and tragic, edgy and desperate. Some of Diana's (Karole Foreman) actions are funny. Sprawled out on the kitchen floor, she makes a week's worth of school lunch sandwiches. She informs her daughter Natalie (Maddie Larson) that she is about to have sex with her husband Dan (Jeff Paul). When Dan tells her he's found a rock star of a therapist, Doctor Madden (Roberto Icaraz), in her eyes, becomes a rock star. Some aren't so funny. She makes a birthday cake for a son, Gabriel (Alexander Pimentel), who died years ago.
Each moment bristles with energy that coils, uncoils, and recoils. The production's biggest achievement is its supercharged pitch. This pitch reflects Diana's changing moods. These moods include depression, a numb, medicated stability, and an exuberant mania. You know at any moment what she's feeling and what she's seeing. You would think that, being so articulate and intelligent, she would be a perfect candidate for therapy. Alas, it's not that easy.
Elizabeth Smith's set is scrumptious (and, unlike the Goodmans, thank God, stable). A tree made of timber perforates a floating bed. It makes us think of sleep punctuated by a Babel of psychotic voices. It's also the perfect hiding place for Gabriel who lingers, at least in spirit.
The performances are electric. The Goodman family not only has to deal with the lost of baby Gabriel. It also has to contend with a decade and a half of Diana's mental illness. To say this in turn creates psychoses in father and daughter would be the understatement of the year.
We see a large part of the story through Diana's eyes. Foreman turns in a spectacular performance. Her experience is our experience. At first, before we realize that she's manic and not, to put it quaintly, high-spirited, she's a dynamo of a wife and a mother. She is lucid and passionate, even when she's not making much sense. Her singing voice blends into her speaking voice, the same way her delusions merge into her daily life. Her moments of delusion, though, are the most moving. Filtered through memory and loss, they're all the more vivid and real to her and to us. When she finally realizes her illness resides in her soul and not her mind, she takes a courageous and, for her, logical next step.
Larson's Natalie and Paul's Dan and keenly show what it's like to deal with an ill mother. Not only do they have to deal with Diana, they have to contend with the demons she induces. Natalie acts out by binging on Diana's mother's little helpers. Unlike Dan, she has an anchor. Clearly in love with Natalie, Michael Barnum's Henry takes it all in stride. A bong maker extraordinaire, he surveys the druggie landscape of the Goodman household. He notes that, unlike Diana, he's an organic, not a pharmaceutical druggie. Also unlike Dan, Natalie wasn't born when Gabriel passed, so her issues are different from those of her parents. This nicely sets up the story's fantastic ending. Dan finally admits that Gabriel did indeed exist but now is no more.
Performances are 8 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. The show runs until May 10. Tickets are $6-$25. The Royal Theatre is located aboard the Queen Mary. For more information, call (562) 985-5526 or visit www.calreporg.