San Jose Rep’s ‘Normal’ a sharply intense production

Dan (Joe Cassidy) stands by his wife Diana (Kendra Kassebaum) in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of "Next to Normal." (Photo by Tim Fuller/Arizona Theatre Company)

Dan (Joe Cassidy) stands by his wife Diana (Kendra Kassebaum) in San Jose Repertory Theatre’s production of “Next to Normal.” (Photo by Tim Fuller/Arizona Theatre Company)

Diana wants to make sandwiches. Lots and lots of sandwiches.
She also wants to have sex with her husband. Lots and lots of sex.
To know Diana is to believe she can conquer the world. The funny and quirky mother of two runs a tight, suburban household, living where everything exists in perfect symmetry. There is husband Dan (a stoic Joe Cassidy), who is the emotional rock of the family. There is also angry and bitter daughter Natalie (an intense turn by Andrea Ross), trying to make sense of the great irony of falling for a special boy (an adorably dopey A.J. Holmes) while staying extremely guarded. And of course there is the handsome son Gabe (a forceful Jonathan Shew), one of those guys you knew in high school that dated the cheerleader, captained the football team and worked on his personal statement to Harvard in his spare time.
In San Jose Repertory Theatre’s viscerally pleasing production of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning “Next to Normal,” cohering beautifully under David Ira Goldstein’s sharp and stellar direction, there are no easy answers to give. Certainly, on the surface, everything seems quite peachy. It’s even a good time to have the new boyfriend meet the parents. Yet one birthday cake, one simple birthday cake fully lit with candles sends the family into a tailspin of epic proportions, informing the drama and giving the characters purpose.
Diana (a wonderful, range-filled turn by Kendra Kassebaum) is suffering from Bipolar I disorder. It is different from Bipolar II disorder in the sense that the mania is substantially abnormal. And in Diana’s case, raging hallucinations for the past 16 years have been devastating for her family and herself. Believe you me, the diagnosis is not my expertise, so for these things, I leaned on my wife, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She joined me to see the national tour production, and quite frankly, there were definitely aspects of this production that were certainly stronger.
Kassebaum, known to the Bay Area theatre world is Glinda in the open-ended San Francisco run of “Wicked,” which opened in 2009, is positively charming as Diana. What works so well about the performance is her fantastic range. Her dark humor is biting; the darkness of her mind is haunting. The great tragedy of Diana is she is unable to get out of her own way. She wants desperately to do something as simple as attend her daughter’s piano recital. It can’t happen. And without an exact science of pills that match her body chemistry, Diana is stuck in a world where oxygen and water are only slightly less important than Risperdal, Valium and Xanex, all entering the bloodstream with only the hope that this combo might be the one.
Without a doubt, the pills take their toll and rip apart the mind of Diana even further. The pills almost seem to be conjoining to create a state of peace, where emotions, anger, and generally feeling absolutely nothing are the norm. As Diana painfully says, “I miss the mountains, I miss my life.”
The other members of the cast were just as effective. Shew plays Gabe with a genuine skill and sharpness. While his presence is not the overly dominating performance I would rather see, what he does best is listen. His voice, with lots of shiny highs and sneaky lows, gave Diana all she bargained for, forcing her into some devastating choices.
The anger and biting sarcasm of Natalie spoke beautifully of a child who has grown so fast, yet missed so much. When one child dominates a family, it is easy to feel resentment. Or even white-hot anger. More tragically, it’s probably just easier to become the invisible girl when you have to compete against Superboy.
The oafish Henry is charmingly awkward, disarming Natalie with a razor-sharp wit with a heavy dose of pragmatism. Add in the skilled performance of stage veteran Mark Farrell, dual cast as Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, and you add an actor with an uncanny natural flow with whichever doctor he is playing.
All of the proceedings sat beautifully on an over-the-top metaphoric set by scenic designer John Ezell. Bright lights and perfect symmetry all contributed to the irony of the piece – a woman in chaos and a family in crisis.
“Next to Normal” is brilliant in that it works on so many levels. If you are looking for a play that gives a powerful, visual representation of a very complicated disorder, this one does exactly that. And throw in a brilliant score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, and you have a show that is painful, deliciously beautiful, and wonderfully hopeful.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Jose Repertory Theatre and the Arizona Theatre Company present “Next to Normal”
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by David Ira Goldstein
Starring Kendra Kassebaum as Diana
The Word: A Wonderful range of performances by a stellar cast make the music and the story soar.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through Feb. 3rd
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose
Tickets range from $10 – $74
For tickets, call (408) 367-7255 or visit http://www.sjrep.com

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