Written by: Devin Hollister
Next to Normal by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt is more than a story of one woman’s struggle with mental disability. Consequently, it holds enormous potential for changing the attitude that audiences have toward the disabled. The play brings cognitive instability closer to the lives of the audience by reframing depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia as social issues rather than internal conflicts of an individual. It makes the experience of the mentally disabled relatable through the familiarity of Diana’s character.
The play also critiques medicine’s scientific view of psychological struggles. It illustrates the fluidity with which humanity switches between normal and abnormal thoughts and behavior, scrutinizing the concepts of what a mental disability is and who is considered disabled. These components of Next to Normal have an overall effect of tellingly lifting the veil of stigmas shrouding mental and emotional disabilities. It reveals a story that exemplifies the theme that life is capable of being enjoyed as long as one has the will to pursue happiness.
While Next to Normal may initially indicate that it is told from the perspective of the character Diana Goodman and is solely about her dealings with mental instability, a more complex and encompassing story about the struggles of an entire family emerges as the play unfolds, effectively eliminating much of the taboo surrounding mental disability by shifting it from a challenge of an individual to one of the family and more extensively, society.
At first glance, Next to Normal appears to be Diana’s play, as the cover features only Diana represented by out of focus eyes and a partial face. The character descriptions at the start of the game suggest a similar conclusion, describing Gabe as “her son,” Dan as “her husband,” and Natalie as “her daughter” (Next to Normal, p. 4). This conception, however, is shattered when Diana, Dan, Natalie, and Gabe join voices and sing together the lines “’ Cause what doesn’t kill me, So fill me up for just another day,” (p. 11) and “Catch me before it’s too late” (p.50), integrating Diana’s psychological conflicts through the points of view of her family to create the more extensive, shared experience of the play.
These moments enhance scenes such as Natalie and Henrys’ song “Everything Else” and Dan’s “Who’s Crazy,” which serve to illustrate the thoughts and problems they have that Diana could not tell through her perspective. The reader notices the transfer of focus from Diana to the other family members when Diana tells Natalie. The latter was previously said, “It’s not about your comfort…It’s about helping your mother” (p.42), that “It’s time to start thinking of your happiness” (p.92).
The writer expands the play to have a family of multi-dimensional characters. A group of people shares this experience of mental disablement, and through this, the stigma surrounding it goes away. Mental and emotional disability shows the issues surrounding the family and even society through the extension of Dr. Madden, Henry, and all that are involved with the Goodman’s, rather than one of a single “crazy” person who an audience may not be able to relate to as a result of current perceptions of the mentally disabled.
In addition to the incorporation of the rest of the family into the world of psychological unsoundness, Diana herself is essential for relating the audience to the play and addressing the way a modern culture views the mentally disabled.
One way that Next to Normal successfully allows audiences to see past the stigma of mental disability is by presenting Diana as more than merely a mental patient. In fact, in various instances throughout the play, she is sassy and witty, such as when she tells Dan, “I keep cave clean. You go out, get fire” (p. 12) in response to being asked to go grocery shopping, adding more dimension to her personality. Also, she is a wife, capable of being loved and loving in return; the writer uses the flashback in which Dan says, “Marry me. Let’s have a family” (p. 25) to illustrate this point, drawing on the audience to recall their moments of passion and love interests, eliciting sympathy for Diana, understanding for Dan, and making Diana appear as more “normal.”
The most crucial factor of Diana’s character regarding relating the experiences of the audience to the stigmatic themes of the play is the fact that she is a mother. Despite her shortcomings as a parent, Natalie still seeks her approval and recognition; this is a significant point that permits Diana to retain her position as a legitimate parent in the eyes of the audience, as opposed to one whose mother-daughter relationship is of mutual apathy; the writer demonstrates this apathy when Natalie repeats “She’s not there…” (p. 47) and is unable to perform at her recital following the discovery of Diana’s absence.
Finally, because Diana lives in traditional American suburbia as depicted on the cover of the book, rather than with “McMurphy and the nurse” (p.56) in a mental institution, the issue of mental disability is brought closer to the lives of the general population. The summation of these intricacies of Diana’s character amounts to a profile with which the audience is very familiar. Most playgoers have a Diana in their life, whether she raised them, are in love with her, or see themselves in her.
This in-depth familiarity plays an integral role in lifting the shroud of social forbiddance surrounding mental instability. Another way Next to Normal effectually overcomes common perceptions and misconceptions of mental and emotional disability is by deconstructing the term “normal” and addressing what it means to be mentally disabled, an endeavor that it first fulfills by questioning the medical approach to such states as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Given today’s obsession with aligning medical and scientific definitions with societal norms, it is essential for the play Next to Normal to include this standpoint in its attempt to take audiences past the stigma linked to mental disabilities. But what is the medical world’s perception of such issues? The play would argue that medicine’s approach to problems of the mind is “not a very exact science” (p. 18) and that “often the best we [doctors] can do is put names on collections of symptoms” (p. 39).
By placing mental disability outside the understanding and control of human science, such disabilities move from illnesses or diseases to a more complicated matter carrying more social implications than medical. This degradation of mental stability as a clinical diagnosis continues with the inflated representation of Dr. Madden as a rock star; this suggests he is a larger-than-life figure of upper society and an entertainer rather than an educated practitioner of science.
Furthermore, the play depicts how mental disabilities are treated as ridiculous and eventually futile, suggesting that mental disability does not have a cure. Therefore, one cannot classify it as a disorder or something that is “wrong” with a person. For example, in the first act, Dr. Fine bombards Diana with a list of her required medications and begins to instruct her that “the pink ones are taken with food but not with the white ones. The white ones are taken with the round yellow ones but not with the triangle yellow ones…” (p. 16), eventually ending with “use a mortar and pestle to grind into a fine powder and sprinkle the powder over a bowl of ice cream” (p. 17).
Parallels drawn during such scenes as the medicated fantasy sequence that Diana and Natalie share between Diana’s drug regime and Natalie’s self-medication of abusing prescription drugs serve to strengthen this concept, as Natalie’s drug usage is a mean to an indefinite end that reflects the ultimate goal of Diana’s medication. Finally, the powerful but enigmatic effects of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which make “cloudy my [Diana’s] new clear” (p. 62), also serve to alleviate stigmas surrounding mental disabilities by presenting psychological impairments as conditions whose “cures” are worse than their symptoms; this brings into question whether problems of the mind are real disorders that need to be fixed and eliminates otherness associated with the mentally disabled.
By successfully dissecting the medical approach to mental disabilities and highlighting its many shortcomings, Next to Normal leaves the audience with a completely new vantage point to viewing such disabilities, a perspective that the play continues to broaden by drawing on the experiences and feelings of the other characters and forcing the audience to ask, as Dan does in the first act, “Who’s crazy” (p. 17)?
Who many see as mentally disabled is an essential component of how society perceives mental disability and its associated notions. Next to Normal proves the point that the supposed line between what many consider to be extreme elements of human nature, sanity, and insanity, is blurred, porous, and entirely subjective for typical constraints of “normal.” One of the play’s primary mechanisms of challenging categorizing people as mentally stable or unstable is the use of words affiliated with mental disability to describe the traditionally more universal experience, love.
For example, Dan unabashedly admits that “love is insane” (p. 22), a statement that becomes more evident when Diana and Natalie echo “This is crazy” (p. 25) regarding agreeing to take their respective relationships to more dangerous levels. By attributing descriptions reminiscent of popular views of mental and emotional disability to something that all humanity feels, the play draws the audience, who all undoubtedly exercise the love of some sort, into the realm of the cognitive disquietude.
The second way the game challenges the stigmas attached to mental disability and what it means to be mentally disabled is by referencing Mozart, a man of prestige, genius, and timeless fame, in the first act. Natalie describes him as “flat fucking crazy” (p. 15) but also remarks that one cannot “hear his doubts or is debts or disease” (p.15) in his music, blurring the line between genius and insanity by pointing out that even though Mozart struggled with his mental health, he was able to achieve greatness and recognition as one of the greatest composers of all time.
The third method that the play employs to provoke the audience into reconsidering the definition of the mentally disabled is giving the “sane” characters in the play moments of mental obscurity that parallel those experienced by Diana. Dan experiences such a moment as he wonders, “Who’s crazy–the one who can’t cope or who’ll still hope?” (p. 17), illustrating similarities between him and Diana in both character and state of mind. These similarities reinforce and expand upon what some believe to be true when he explains to Diana, “I know you’re hurting. I am, too” (p. 32), and when he states that his inner anguish “is just a slower suicide” (p. 55).
The climax of Dan’s emotional parallels to Diana is when he acknowledges the presence of Gabe, him, and Diana’s late son, by saying, “Gabe. Gabriel” (p. 100) and, as a result, reveals that he has been struggling psychologically and shares Diana’s visions of Gabe; this leads the audience to decide if Dan, too, is schizophrenic to some extent and if so, to reevaluate their qualifications for labeling someone as mentally disabled. Also, Natalie, who even Diana considers “a freak” (p. 8) and is self-described as “one fuck-up away from disaster” (p. 23), serves as an equally important vehicle for the reframing of the mentally disabled; this is because, like Dan, she shares essential mental trials with Diana, mainly in the form of depression, the reliance on drugs for an escape from her pain, and in that her love affair with Henry and subsequent neglect of him after losing herself in the search for “normal” mirrors Diana’s marriage to Dan.
The overarching effect that these strategies have on the audience is to show that the concept of “normal” cannot be strictly defined. In many ways, no one is entirely stable mentally or emotionally. This realization helps close the societal gap that most theatergoers feel between them and the mentally disabled, successfully highlighting the two groups’ similarities and allowing them to look beyond the stigmas of mental disability.
Next to Normal effectively transports audiences past the contemporary social taboos of mental disability by grounding such conditions in the familiar, and by deconstructing what society perceives, as usual, allowing the other themes of the play to emerge as more universally relevant observations of life. One of these central themes is that the appreciation of life is felt by keeping hope and finding “the will to find our way” (p. 104), and as there is no prescribed path on this way, the best one can strive for is “next to normal” (p. 64).