Theatre Calgary may be describing its season opener as a “riveting rock musical,” but the show’s star, Kathryn Akin, has another term: an “anti-musical.”
“It doesn’t hold any conventions of musical theatre,” she says. “It really is, ultimately, uncategorizable.” After another pause, she concludes: “It’s just damn good theatre.”
Perhaps that’s why Next to Normal was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009 and won three, and why it also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an honour usually reserved for non-musical dramas. (Rent and A Chorus Line were two of the other musicals to have received this honour.)
Akin says none of Next to Normal’s dramatic content is lost or diminished with the inclusion of music. Instead, she says the lyrics are crucial to pushing the story forward and the music and dialogue are “seamlessly written” — interweaving throughout the production.
The play traces the impact of mental illness — specifically, bipolar disorder — on Diana Goodman (Akin), her husband and their two children.
It’s not Akin’s first time playing the character. She was in a smaller production of Next to Normal at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. (Incidentally, Sara Farb, who plays Diana’s daughter, Natalie, also appeared in the Tarragon production.) It’s just one of the entries on Akin’s impressive resumé, which includes roles in several West End productions. But Akin says the character of Goodman is the “hugest part” written for a theatre actress who can sing.
“I’ve played a few big parts in terms of the canon,” says Akin, referencing the roles of Mama Rose in Gypsy and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, “but this is 40 times as big as those parts.”
She says one of the play’s aims is to lift the veil on a subject that is often shrouded in shame and silence, adding that statistics show one in five Canadians has mental health issues, and, as such, Next to Normal could have a big impact.
Next to Normal’s Diana Goodman suffers from Bipolar 1, the “furthest, worst, extreme” of the disorder, says Akin.
“When you have Bipolar 1, you are breaking into psychotic episodes in either the mania or in the depression… where you are in a state which is causing potentially great damage to yourself or others.”
As the play progresses, Goodman experiences psychotic episodes and has to be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward, where she receives ECT — Electric Compulsive Therapy — which Akin describes as a “controversial treatment” for those suffering from bipolar. Next to Normal also explores the impact the mother’s illness has on those around her, and how hard it can be for the family to try and maintain an illusion of “normalcy.”
And yet, despite the serious nature of the play’s subject material, Akin says the play is “actually very funny.”
“There’s a great thread of humour throughout the entire piece,” she says.
Needless to say, a play dealing with such sensitive material must also be well–researched, and Akin says Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey did their homework. “It’s an absolutely phenomenal piece of writing,” she says.
Akin, who says mental illness has touched members of her own family, hopes Next to Normal will “engender a great deal of discussion among the Calgary audiences,” noting that the play doesn’t offer answers, but asks plenty of questions.
“It’s opening up its arms to people to come into the subject matter,” she says, adding that, judging from her experience with the show in Toronto, it attracted more non-musical theatre-goers than those who are hardcore fans of the genre.
“Hopefully, everybody leaves the theatre more educated, with our humanity enlarged a little more,” she says.