[WARNING! This review contains a spoiler—not of the show's ending, but of a plot reveal that occurs during the first act. It's a reveal that'll only spoil the first few minutes of the show, but if you care about such things, STOP READING AT ONCE!]
Next to Normal, making its Portland debut at Artists Repertory Theatre, is a widely loved (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) musical that gained a cult following on Broadway for its depiction of a family struggling with the effects of mental illness. But while I certainly understand forming a passionate attachment to a musical (see: me, Rent, 1997), I don't particularly understand forming a passionate attachment to this musical. Next to Normal is advertised as exploring a subject that's not typical musical fare, but it nonetheless takes an amped-up, gimmicky approach to its material. Under the direction of Jon Kretzu, Artist Rep's production too often veers toward frenetic, highlighting the weaknesses in the book.
Susannah Mars plays Diana, a faded, weary mother who for years has been struggling with severe bipolar disorder, anxiety, and delusions. Mars isn't renowned for being what'd you'd call a "subtle" actor (in her annual holiday show she has been known to portray a singing latke) but here she mostly reins it in; Diana is wan, intelligent, and foul-mouthed, and she struggles to reconcile her illness with her own self-awareness. ("Most people who think they're happy are actually just stupid," she snaps at one point.) She fights her illness with an arsenal of pills and a barrage of doctor visits, aided by her supportive husband Dan, played by William Wadhams of the band Animotion (responsible for the '80s hit "Obsession") in his first professional musical theater role. The casting of a non-theater actor here was savvy—Wadhams' level earnestness makes up for the occasional wooden moment. Rounding out the family are the great Meghan McCandless as daughter Natalie, and John Debkowski as teenaged son Gabe, a role problematic in both casting and writing.
The show opens with a number about a fairly typical evening/morning: Diana waits up late for Gabe to get home; has rare sex with her husband; squabbles a bit with her daughter. And then, the meltdown, as Diana begins frantically making sandwiches on the floor of the kitchen, chagrining her family. All is not right with Mom, it appears, but it's not 'til a few songs later that we really learn just how wrong things are: Turns out that Gabe actually died years before, and the figure prowling the stage is just a delusion, one symptom of Diana's illness.
As the family's only live child, and charged with the show's most interesting storyline, high schooler Meghan McCandless gives an impressively mature, poised performance as a girl who keeps her life in rigid, self-sufficient control, terrified of becoming her mother. It's a poignant, relatable dynamic; Diana's imbalanced relationship with her husband also provides some truly heart-wrenching moments. But every time the show threatens to become too realistically observed or felt, Evil Dead Son Gabe jazz hands his way across the stage, distracting from the relationships that actually matter. It doesn't help that actor John Debkowski's high-voltage turn jars with the cast's otherwise fairly level, naturalistic performances. (Debkowski also endows Gabe with a sinister, quasi-sexual energy that occasionally sees him creeping on his own mom.) It's a frustrating, out-of-step performance of a character that's problematic to begin with.