Gritty musical blows the mind

SINGAPORE - Think bipolar disorder and all too often, the pop culture version of the mental illness comes to mind.

Whether it is actress Claire Danes having a meltdown as her CIA character Carrie on the hit TV series Homeland, or the bastardised retellings of poet Sylvia Plath sticking her head in the oven, these encounters with mental illness are marked with morbid fascination and tossed aside without further - and much-needed - scrutiny.

So it comes as a breath of fresh air that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next To Normal devotes as much time as it does to humanising the sufferer to throwing the spotlight on those around her who are also coping with her illness in one way or another.

On the surface, the Goodman family is no different from any other in suburbia.

You have the son sneaking home in the wee hours and the angsty teenage daughter panicking about school the next day. Throw in a stoic father and harried mother, and you just about have a pretty picture of family life - but wait, why is Mrs Goodman slapping peanut butter onto a loaf of sliced bread that she has just emptied out on the floor?

From Pangdemonium Productions comes a heart-wrenching, gut-twisting gem of a musical that does not whitewash the painful cracks in a life burdened with a severe mental illness.

This has been the year of the taut family drama for Pangdemonium, who scored critical acclaim for its previous outing, Rabbit Hole, about a set of parents grieving the loss of their young son.

Next To Normal is an ambitious musical that knows it cannot cover all the bases of mental illness in under three hours. But it does try, even if some aspects loom larger than life or are packaged for the audience a little too neatly.

The set, for instance, takes the subject matter literally, featuring the neon outline of a brain bookended by two side profiles of a person's face. All the same, I watched the musical with a friend who was a former psychologist with the Institute of Mental Health and she found the work largely accurate.

Its central character, Diana (Sally Ann Triplett), was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 16 years ago after a traumatic incident. She battles delusions, hallucinations and hints of schizophrenia, buoyed by her loving husband Dan (Adrian Pang) and son Gabe (Nathan Hartono), but leaving her daughter Natalie (Julia Abueva) belligerent and frustrated.

For most of the musical, Diana is under the care of psychotherapist Dr Madden (Juan Jackson), who does his best to help keep her illness under control.

But this is no feel-good, happy-ever-after tale.

The beauty of Next To Normal lies in its unflinching lens. It explores the imperfections of medical science in the arena of mental health, where psychiatrists and psychologists are still searching for better ways to treat patients.

It also does not shy from tidal waves of hopelessness that can sometimes leave a family bereft - a sufferer may seem like she is about to get better before she plunges once again into an abyss of despair.

And while the musical is unabashed in its earnest portrayals of commitment and enduring love, it does not spoonfeed sentimentality to the audience either.

Pang, in particular, is devastatingly on point as Dan, exercising a careful amount of restraint as the long-suffering caregiver, a figure often overlooked in encounters with mental illness.

In the heartbreaking song A Light In The Dark, Dan tries to convince Diana to try a controversial form of therapy: "Tell me why I wait through the night, and why do I leave on the light?... Our house was a home long ago. Take this chance, 'cause it may be our last to be free, to let go of the past."

Abueva and Linden Furnell (playing her boyfriend Henry) are also sweet as a teenage couple discovering romance for the first time, in an integral subplot that plays well into the musical's overall arc.

Together, these characters interrogate the inexplicable nature of mental illness, a faceless predator that does not treat its victim kindly. Next To Normal does not pull punches with its characters, but even if they are left bruised, they also emerge braver - and it left me feeling exactly the same way.

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