What Is Normal?

rock musical aims to destigmatize those with mental illnesses

Raquel Dorf, photos by Timothy Mather

A FAMILY STRUGGLE. Actors in “Next To Normal” rehearse before the show premieres at the Mabel Tainter Theater on Oct. 16. The show is about a bipolar woman and her family’s efforts to cope with the struggle.
A FAMILY STRUGGLE. Actors in “Next To Normal” rehearse before the show premieres at the Mabel Tainter Theater on Oct. 16. The show is about a bipolar woman and her family’s efforts to cope with the struggle.

Theater is more than simply an enjoyable form of entertainment; it also can be used as a channel to open a dialogue about complex issues. One show that opens doors for discussion is Next to Normal, a musical that depicts members of a family trying to help each other through the many challenges of dealing with mental illness.

The Menomonie Theater Guild is presenting the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical on the historic stage of the Mabel Tainter Theater starting Oct. 16.

Next to Normal is the story of the Goodman family and the mother who suffers from severe bipolar depression. The plot follows the mother’s struggle to manage her illness, and – more importantly – her family’s ability to cope with the condition themselves. The fast-paced and driving rock musical touches on serious topics like trauma, loss, and grief – but it also portrays the unconditional love of a family, all accompanied by original pop-rock songs.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults experience some form of mental illness in a given year. It is because of this jarring statistic that director Mel Smith-Tourville wanted to bring Next to Normal to the Chippewa Valley.

“I want the audience to realize that even if they do not personally experience it, someone they know certainly does,” she said.

Smith-Tourville also hopes the show will give the audience a better understanding of what a challenge it can be to suffer with mental illness.

“I want the audience to say, ‘Oh my goodness, my aunt/mother/friend is/was experiencing mental illness, that is why she had such a hard time caring for her children,’” she explained.

Next To Normal also aims to bring awareness about the stigmas surrounding mental illness. The show creates a platform for conversation for audience members to recognize the harmful effects of mental illness stigmas and gives them the opportunity to re-evaluate how they view mental illness themselves.

“It helps us better understand the importance of destigmatizing mental illness,” said Smith-Tourville. After some of the shows, a panel discussion open to the audience will be held to touch on the themes and also elaborate more on the impacts of mental illness.

Although the musical carries some heavy themes, it’s still a show the next generation of theater-goers will enjoy.

“It is designed to call forth every emotion,” Smith-Tourville said. “It is action-packed with strong, driven music and wild lighting that will blow the audience’s mind.”

Finally, Smith-Tourville offered a message to potential audience members: “The setting and message is one that will never leave you. When you walk out the door after seeing this show, you will never be the same.”

The powerful production will run Oct. 16-18 and Oct. 24-25 at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts. For exact showtimes and ticket info, visit www.mabeltainter.org.

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