Next to Normal by the Ateneo Blue Repertory Paints a Realistic Portrayal of Mental Health
Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Next to Normal, is one of the most beloved pieces of modern theater. It’s also one of the most difficult, both as audience and as performer, as the plot itself serves as a massive trigger warning.
The play tells the story of Diana (Cris Villonco), a suburban mother diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her husband Dan (Jef Flores) struggles with how severely his life is impacted by the side effects of Diana’s medications, and begins to question his own sanity. The situation is exacerbated when it comes to light that Diana has been having hallucinations of their dead son Gabe (Tim Pavino and Adrian Lindayag), which have led her to believe he’s been alive all along.
With little to no effective options left for treatment, Diana’s therapist, Dr. Madden (Jobim Javier and Jason Tan Liwag) suggests that they resort to electro-convulsive therapy. The couple agrees to the controversial treatment at the cost of Diana’s ability to retain memories.
At the center of the storm is Natalie (Jam Binay and Nikki Bengzon), their younger daughter, who can’t escape the shadow of her long-gone brother. Angered by having to compete for her mother’s affection with someone who isn’t even there, she turns to drug abuse. Henry (Davy Narciso and Carlos De Guzman), a boy who’s fallen in love with Natalie, finds himself having to constantly save her from her own devices.
The material is heavier than one might expect for a student production, but the talents at Ateneo Blue Repertory are committed to telling the story with visceral honesty, as well as sensitivity. Based on the preview performance Esquire attended, the play appears to be in excellent hands.
Villonco demonstrates tremendous ability to capture the many layers within Diana, shifting from mournful hollowness to bittersweet nostalgia—and ultimately, pained yearning—in the span of the song “I Miss the Mountains.” Flores, on the other hand, oozes with put-on, sardonic confidence in “It’s Gonna Be Good,” a pep-talk for someone who needs to lie to himself to get by.
By allowing the alternating actors of the other roles to both take the stage, the preview for Next to Normal also showcased the different qualities each performer brings to their role. While Pavino’s Gabe has a certain vulnerability to his vocals (as seen in the ironic “I’m Alive”), Lindayag’s take offers more of a soulful tenderness. Binay’s Natalie feels like a young woman trying her damned best to hide all her pain away, while Bengzon tends to wear her angst on her sleeve.
The Henrys and the Maddens weren’t able to stand out as much given the preview’s structure, but it’s safe to say from the cast numbers that Narciso, De Guzman, Javier, and Liwag are more than capable of delivering satisfying performances.
It’s a testament to the work of musical director Ejay Yatco that the entire cast is able to hit every emotional beat. The play is notoriously challenging for performers, so to hear the students (Binay, Bengzon, Narciso, and De Guzman) harmonize near-flawlessly with the more established veterans in the cast speaks volumes of Yatco’s talents.
Tying all this together is Missy Maramara’s direction. Fresh off winning several awards with BlueRep’s 2019 energetic production of Spring Awakening, Maramara takes audiences through even more extreme highs and lows with Next to Normal. And yet, while she’s skilled at drawing out the pains of each character through her direction, perhaps most commendable is her desire to close the show on a hopeful note, rather than an emotionally destitute one.
The full production, running from March 6 to 22 at the Gonzaga Fine Arts Theater at Ateneo De Manila University, will also be serviced by Tata Tuviera’s production design, which was unfortunately not on display at the preview. Maramara describes it as almost Polly Pocket-like, implying that the intimate spaces in which the actors perform serve to create a sense of emotional suffocation. It’s apt, given the nature of the material, which is both a pleasure and a pain to watch.
However, it’s this production’s commitment to closing on a hopeful, yet realistic note that makes BlueRep’s take on Next to Normal an anticipated watch. Too often are stories on mental health issues inadequate in looking beyond the suffering. In most cases, they either end as tragedies or as fairy tales. Next to Normal promises to be neither, as real life often is.
Next to Normal opens on March 6, 8 p.m. at the Gonzaga Fine Arts Theater, Ateneo De Manila University. It runs until March 22, on all dates except Sundays. Tickets are available here.