Mental illness stands tall in ‘Next to Normal’ musical

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Mental illness stands tall in ‘Next to Normal’ musical

The Award-winning musical and rock opera 'Next to Normal' provides people who are affected by bipolar disorder a chance to be represented as accurately as possible in a creative work. 

The Award-winning musical and rock opera 'Next to Normal' provides people who are affected by bipolar disorder a chance to be represented as accurately as possible in a creative work. 

Amy Boyle Photography

The Award-winning musical and rock opera 'Next to Normal' provides people who are affected by bipolar disorder a chance to be represented as accurately as possible in a creative work. 

Amy Boyle Photography

Amy Boyle Photography

The Award-winning musical and rock opera 'Next to Normal' provides people who are affected by bipolar disorder a chance to be represented as accurately as possible in a creative work. 

By ARTS & CULTURE REPORTER

“Next to Normal”—a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical following the struggles of a suburban mother living with bipolar disorder—brings mental illness representation to the Boho Theatre’s final production of the season. 

Madison Kennedy, a junior theatre major at Columbia and assistant stage manager for the musical, has bipolar disorder and is gratified by the play’s portrayal of mental illness.

“I’ve seen a lot of movies and television shows and other forms of media that depict bipolar disorder, and I feel, out of everything I’ve seen, [‘Next to Normal’] is the most accurate,” Kennedy said.

The play, which opened Aug. 9 and will run until Oct. 9 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. 

The musical ran on Broadway in 2009 and won three Tony awards, lending music to the experiences of Diana Goodman, a woman who finds the treatment for her illness comes at a  cost—damage to her emotions, personality and memory. 

What makes the portrayal of Diana rare is breaking stereotypes.

“People just want to see [those with mental illness] snap and ‘go crazy,’” Kennedy said. “They just push everyone to the side that [are] high-functioning.”

It is vital to have a continuing discussion about the way mental illness is represented in media, according to Jennifer McGowan, associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“One of the ways stigma is perpetuated is through popular culture,” McGowan said. “Because of the stigma, [people] might not seek treatment.” 

Kennedy said the show intelligently explains what it is like to live with bipolar disorder—a task Kennedy admits is a challenge.

“You try so hard to explain it, but you can’t,” she said, describing her frustration with detailing the emotions that come from mania—a symptom associated with extremely high moods and delusions—and depression.

Kennedy was comforted “Next to Normal” let audience members see the symptoms of this illness for themselves. Typically, people with this condition are burdened with explaining it to those around them.

Colette Todd, who plays the lead role of Diana in the Boho production, put a lot of thought and research into her portrayal.

“It was important to me that I brought a realness [to portraying Diana] so people can connect to her and understand her plight ,” Todd said. “Otherwise, she just becomes a stereotype.”

Todd said she has a history of mental illness in her family, so she understood the importance of not perpetuating stereotypes.

McGowan thinks stories of recovery can lighten the burden of stereotypes, bringing a needed balance to representation of mental illness. 

“We would love to see more of an emphasis on the ability to live in recovery for individuals [living] with a variety of mental health conditions, as they do every day in real life,” McGowan said.

detailing the emotions that come from a cycle of mania—a symptom associated with extremely high moods and delusions—and depressive episodes.

Kennedy was comforted that “Next to Normal” allows audience members to see the symptoms of this mental illness for themselves. Typically, people who are affected by bipolar disorder are burdened with explaining their illness to the those around them.

Colette Todd, who plays the lead role of Diana Goodman in the Boho’s  production, said she put a lot of thought into her portrayal of the character.

“It was important to me that I brought a realness [to portraying Diana,] so people can connect to her and understand her plight,” Todd explained. “Otherwise, she just becomes a stereotype.” 

Todd said she has a history of mental illness in her family, so she understood the importance of not perpetuating stereotypes.

McGowan said she thinks stories of recovery can lighten the burden of stereotypes, bringing a needed balance to representation of mental illness in media. 

“We would love to see more of an emphasis on the ability to live in recovery for individuals [living] with a variety of mental health conditions, as they do every day in real life,” McGowan said.

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