Lithium- and Xanax-induced semblances of happiness are hidden behind the makeshift smiles of the Goodmans, a seemingly average American family.
A trauma hit the Goodman family 16 years ago and still echoes in their minds.
In three performances running Friday through Saturday, Act III Theatre Ensemble at UCLA will bring the Goodman family’s mental scars – as they grapple with loss, grief and mental illness – to the Northwest Campus Auditorium stage in “Next to Normal,” a Tony Award-winning contemporary rock musical.
Megan Fitzgerald, a fourth-year theater student and co-artistic and managing director of Act III, said the show traces the Goodman family’s monthslong effort to cope with the rippling effects of a mother’s mental illness on her husband and daughter.
“A trauma happened to the family many years back that onset bipolar depression and schizophrenia in the mother,” Fitzgerald said. “In the beginning, you think you are watching an insane asylum, but by the end, you come to root for the mother because you understand her.”
Fitzgerald added that the Act III producers chose the musical based on its demanding roles for actors and the ways the subject matter influences audiences.
“We picked ‘Next to Normal’ because we wanted a musical that would challenge audiences to ask hard questions,” Fitzgerald said. “Nobody ever talks about their own anxiety or how they might be falling into depression.”
Abigail Faber, a third-year theater student and director of the show, said 52 people auditioned for the six roles in the cast.
“It really came down to the people who were in the right place in their lives for this show,” Faber said. “They had to be able to dive into these emotionally taxing roles over and over again.”
Faber said an important part of the show is combating traditional assumptions of people who have mental health disorders.
“Mental illnesses really do not define people,” Faber said. “‘Next to Normal’ shows that you are a person first.”
Fitzgerald said a seven-piece band will take on the music in the rock opera show.
“The rhythms themselves get under your skin, so you can feel the mother as she goes through one of her manic episodes,” Fitzgerald said. “The rock music really gets to your emotions in a way that other varieties of music don’t do as easily.”
While Act III Theatre Ensemble shows normally cost around $25,000, the company was granted free performances in the Northwest Campus Auditorium because of the campus-relevant issues present in the show, said Fitzgerald.
Daniel Slatkin, a resident assistant, member of the UCLA Residential Life Programming Board and a fifth-year mathematics student, said mental health issues arise when students must transition from their high school to face the pressures of a college environment.
“As an RA, I have had many students come to me with the mental pressures they feel on this campus,” Slatkin said. “‘Next to Normal’ can help them understand how to deal with these issues in the future.”
Trying to portray the realities of mental illness and the poignant themes of the show have also taken an emotional toll on some members of the cast.
“Most musicals are a surface-level song and dance about how we’re best friends or how our love lives fell apart,” said fourth-year theater student Nick Bell, who plays Henry, the love interest of the daughter, Natalie. “I’ve never been in a process where I’ve found myself crying through multiple rehearsals.”
Katheryne Penny, a fourth-year theater student who plays the mother in the production, said the show is famously known for being emotionally taxing, and the actors turned on hip-hop beats at the end of rehearsal to shake off the crippling emotions often coupled with playing their characters.
“The show really hit us in a way we weren’t prepared for,” Penny said. “Personally, the last few rehearsals have been difficult for me because I do know a lot of people who struggle with mental illness.”
Active Minds, a group under the Undergraduate Students Association Council Student Wellness Commission that combats stigma surrounding mental illness, will be present at all three performances to support the production, said Nicole Moreland, a fourth-year psychology student and events director of Active Minds.
“It’s not very often that the mentally ill community gets positive or even accurate depiction,” Moreland said. “’Next to Normal’ reminds you that there is a human element behind every person with a mental illness.”
Penny said the show tells people not to feel ashamed of their mental health issues because everybody deals with the pains of everyday life.
“The American way is denial with a smile,” Penny said. “If we can inspire people to talk about things that are often bottled up, we’ve done our job.”