‘Next to Normal’ Has a Design That is Anything But

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February 12th, 2014

Omaha, NE — A high-energy, Pulitzer-winning musical about mental illness at the Omaha Playhouse creates a unique challenge for its designers.

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The Cast of 'Next to Normal'

The Cast of ‘Next to Normal’

Choosing a theatre season is a complex and sometimes tedious process. In the case of the Omaha Community Playhouse, choosing two can be even trickier. The collection of shows must be a balance of comedy and drama, straight plays and musicals. In the case of the Playhouse’s smaller Howard Drew Theater, Resident Director Amy Lane said that finding the right musical is task all its own.

“Musicals are always a trick for us,” Lane said. “Because you’re dealing with ‘Well, what are some new musical that we can get the rights to?’ Of course, you have to choose a musical that’s going to fit in the smaller Drew space, that 200-seat black box. Looking at smaller cast musicals and what was [going to be] the best script available. We all agreed immediately that Next to Normal was the most exciting new musical that new could put in our season.”

Next to Normal is a rock musical that centers around the main character Diana and her suburban family as they struggle to hold themselves together through Diana’s worsening mental illness. The show has received numerous honors over the past few years like Tony and Outer Critics Circle Awards while also having the distinction of being the first musical since Rent in 1996 to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Lane said that one big challenge in creating the show was the design of the set. The play moves through various locations at a quick pace, eliminating the possibility of a overly realistic set design. A neutral space was needed to allow changes in locations and times. While pondering over design ideas, both Lane and designer Steven Williams started to research how prevalent mental illness is in America. The numbers they found from the Mayo Clinic and National Institute of Mental Health were astounding.

“1 in 4 adults, in any given year, will struggle with some type of mental illness and seek help for it,” Lane said. “…in their lifetime, 50% of all U.S. adults will have some type of mental illness that they have to deal with.”

Williams had those numbers in his head as we standing around his neighborhood, looking up and down at all of the houses on his street. He thought that if 1 in 4 people in this country suffer from some sort of mental disorder, there’s no doubt that at least one person on his block is going through tough times, possibly as tough as the ones the main character Diana faces in the show. But if you did, no one outside your home would know about the struggle you endure, as every house has a closed front door, sealing off the rest of world from what happens behind it. Therein lied the solution to his design.

“So he created this whole set that is a montage of neighborhood doors.” Lane said. “And the play is about let’s open one of them and take a look at what’s happening with one of these families. Take a look at what really is normal or not normal.”

So how normal can families like the one in Next to Normal be? Are our own families more or less normal than them? The answer might surprise you.

Next to Normal runs through March 16th at the Howard Drew Theatre of the Omaha Community Playhouse on 69th and Cass Streets. For Ticket information, call the Omaha Playhouse box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com.

 

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