Next to Normal
Written by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Ron Jenkins
Starring Kathryn Akin, Réjean Cournoyer, Sara Farb, Robert Markus, Michael Cox and John Ullyatt
Citadel Theatre (9828 101A Ave.)
Runs Runs Saturday, Oct. 20 - Sunday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m., matinée show Sunday, Oct. 28, Nov. 4, Nov. 11 and Thursday, Nov. 1 at 1:30 p.m. No show on Monday, Oct. 21, 29 and Nov. 5
Starting at $36.75 at tickets.citadeltheatre.com
Theatre that deals with taboo subjects often walks a fine line between getting a message across and putting on an entertaining show. The Citadel’s latest production of Next to Normal does just that, mustering the courage to tackle real-life issues like depression and mental illness while still creating an engaging and fascinating experience for the audience.
Next to Normal focuses on Diana, a mother struggling to keep her family together while battling worsening bipolar disorder. With a glimpse into the family’s day-to-day life, the play examines the effect Diana’s condition has on those around her. And while Diana is the character with the illness, there are also unsung heroes in her story like her husband and daughter, who are trying to live their lives despite the difficult circumstance.
Although it’s a contemporary rock musical with many comedic scenes, Next to Normal is also saddled with the responsibility of portraying a very serious condition and shedding light on the reality of those battling mental illness. Cory Sincennes, the costume and set designer for Next to Normal, explains that finding the balance between the two has been essential in the musical’s realization.
“Mental illness affects far more people in the world than I think people realize,” Sincennes says. “Sometimes plays can seem really heavy and not for everyone, and the thing about this is the message comes through but it’s also a really fun evening.”
Focusing on of mental illness when designing the set and costumes, Sincennes concentrated much of his efforts on the integration of colour, which has become one of the most interesting aspects of the production.
“The national colour for mental illness is actually purple, so that was the jumping-off point for my entire costume design palate,” he explains. “Not everything is purple, but it was the beginning colour world that we explored.”
Attempting to subtly incorporate the colour into as many places as possible, various shades of purple are present in the costumes, props and even lighting. It may not always be obvious, but the colour is in almost every scene. The subdued colour choice is also reflective of the nature of mental illness, and Sincennes says his incorporation of it acts as a symbol for the misconceptions that surround it.
“It’s a message that needs to get out there,” he says. “There are a lot of people who don’t know they have anything, and (other people shouldn’t) judge, because you don’t know what’s going on. That’s the thing I love about the show. At the beginning it starts off as a perfect family and you don’t realize (something is wrong). It’s an interesting thing — you see people walking down the street and you don’t know what’s going on inside their house.”
Hoping the idea of overcoming mental illness will shine through above all, Sincennes and his crew worked to create set designs and special effects that would reflect the theme. His inspiration for the set was simple but strong, taking the form of a stripped-down building blueprint meant to convey how the family’s life is in a state between stability and chaos.
This in-between world is significant because it represents where the characters currently are in their lives — living between where they are as a family and where they wish they could be. Sincennes explains that his design was not only meant to provide the show with a set, but also to create a world in which the characters come alive. And while he has the power to stretch reality through his work, in the end it’s all about finding a way to share what these characters are experiencing with the audience in a believable manner.
“In some of the moments that we do have, it’s sort of a metaphor for mental illness,” Sincennes explains. “There’s a particular effect where we deal with the fogginess of memory and loss that the audience gets to see.”
It’s these moments, when honesty shines through and clarity is achieved, that Sincennes is most proud of the work they’ve done for Next to Normal. With such an important message, the cast and crew have found a balance between creating an enjoyable performance and conveying the significance and seriousness of mental illness.
“Sometimes when you do a big musical, the point of the story can sometimes get lost behind the special effects and the money and the grandeur of the design,” Sincennes says. “Something that we are all very proud of is that the story comes through despite everything else, and after all of our decisions, we made the story and all of the characters come through and shine the most.”
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