This past winter, What A Do Theater in Battle Creek staged the award-winning play Next to Normal. Now Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo is trying their hand at it with two Broadway actors playing lead roles.
As Next to Normal opens, we find Dan and Diana Goodman working through the hustle and bustle of everyday life. But we soon find out that the family’s problems go beyond balancing careers and raising children. They are also dealing with mental illness. Actress Michelle Duffy made her Broadway debut last year in Leap of Faith. She plays Diana Goodman, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Duffy says Next to Normal is also about family dysfunction and relationships.
“Pretty much just everything that everybody deals with. And it’s done in a really original, beautiful, poetic way, and I’m endlessly finding new things to work and to play with in this show”
As Duffy’s character suffers from mental illness, her family also struggles. Trey Ellet, whose Broadway credits include a two year stint in the cast of Rent, plays Dan Goodman, Diane’s husband. Ellet says it’s a story with many twists.
“I mean there’s lots of sort of plot points as we say. As an actor it’s challenging to sort of make sure you bring the audience point by point and so it sort of lays out in the appropriate way”
Those plot points include revelations about the characters’ past and the difficulties they’re hiding now. Duffy says roles like these don’t come around very often.
“It’s one those roles that just requires everything of you, everything. You have to empty the tank in order to do it right. It’s a huge wonderful, meaty challenge”
In addition to taking us through Diane Goodman’s diagnosis and search for the proper treatment, we also see her family struggle with a wife and mother dealing with mental illness. Next to Normal also deals with suffering the loss of a loved one, and explores questions over drugs and treating mental illness. But Michelle Duffy says the audience isn’t “hit over the head” about how to handle mental illness. Her fellow actor Trey Ellett agrees.
“I personally don’t think of it sometimes as a message. It’s a story and if you tell it right then everyone will take from it what they can take from it, their own unique experience it. It’s just about telling the story the best way you can.”
Next to Normal’s run at Farmer’s Alley is being co-sponsored by the Community Healing Centers of Kalamazoo. The non-profit group provides counseling for mental illness and treatment for addiction. Executive Director Sally Reames says those aren’t issues that people talk about or sing about very often. But she says bringing the issue to light can help remove some of the stigma of mental illness.
“There always is stigma attached to that. But the more we talk about them and look at it as a community, the better off we’ll all be and being able to look at what really is normal and what we’re hiding behind"
Next to Normal continues at the Farmer’s Alley Theater in Kalamazoo this Thursday through Sunday. The play has been held over and will show again June 28th, 29th and 30th.