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Review: Next to Normal

Meet Diana Goodman.

Loving mom and devoted wife. Everything seems picture-perfect in their cozy little home. Their daughter Natalie is growing up to be a talented young girl.  but its her son that she had a special fondness for…  a son she lost in childbirth but is still very much alive in her mind, even more so than the rest of her family. Diana is bi-polar and her delusions are getting worse. She’s losing more of herself as the years go by. Pieces of her memory flitter in and out her consciousness as the drugs and electric shock therapies takes its toll. Her family tries to cope, but as her symptoms get worse, it becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Who’s crazy, the husband or wife?
Who’s crazy to live their whole life
Believing that somehow things aren’t as bizarre as they are?

Who’s crazy, the one who can’t cope?
Or maybe, the one who’ll still hope?

Soon the family must make a decision: continue to fight or let go.

Next to Normal is the Tony-Award winning stage musical about a family trying to cope with the ups and downs of having a loved one in the throes of mental illness. It mixes equal parts of pathos and dark comedy to narrate the tragedy of losing someone you love little by little until the familiar is all but replaced by the unrecognizable.

Mental illness is an issue rarely talked about. More often that not, instead of having a rational discourse on a subject matter as serious as this, people tend to couch it in humor. Jokes like “kung mahirap ka, ang tawag sa iyo sira-ulo. Kung mayaman ka, you’re eccentric” only help to mire the topic in myths and misconceptions.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about mental illness? A raving lunatic in a straitjacket or a psychotic killer from a horror film? Fact is, there are thousands of ways the brain can go wrong and just as many gradients of “normalcy”. But then again, what defines “normal”? What if you have an unusual phobia? an addiction or obsession perhaps, or maybe even a bout of depression now and then… what separates normal from abnormal then? With all the different personality quirks one can have, Who actually fits all the standards of normalcy?

I don’t need a life that’s normal
That’s way too far away
But something next to normal
Would be okay
Yeah, something next to normal
That’s the thing I’d like to try
Close enough to normal
To get by

The first time I saw this play two years ago, I found merely entertaining but I couldn’t relate much to it. The  show’s topic was controversial and it received mixed reviews from critics. Some called it exploitative, sensationalizing, or even trivializing the plight of those suffering from mental disorders. Others praised it for bringing to the mainstream a topic that is rarely discussed in polite conversation. How do you deal with someone who is manic-depressive, schizophrenic, or suffering from autism?

Should you empathize?


or just ignore their bizarre behavior altogether?

At that time, I treated the subject matter merely as a curiosity but years after I first saw the play, I actually met real people who are coping with mental illnesses… young people who’ve had the misfortune of having their brain chemistry misfiring at the prime of their lives, older relatives who are in various stages of dementia. The issue becomes even more painful when relatives and loved ones are involved.

The sensation that you’re screaming, but you never make a sound.
Or the feeling that you’re falling, but you never hit the ground.
It just keeps on rushing at you day by day by day by day.
You don’t know, you don’t know what it’s like to live that way.
Like a refugee, a fugitive, forever on the run.
If it gets me it will kill me, but I don’t know what I’ve done.

Suddenly, it became all that more real… the uncle who took you to the park when you were young now rocks to himself in his own little world, gibbering nonsensical phrases at phantoms only he can see, or that classmate from high school who now has to take medication for severe bouts of manic-depressive episodes… They’re no longer things you just see in the movies, it could happen to you… or people you know. And its that sinking realization of just how fragile our brains are that makes one question all the preconceived notions on consciousness and the sense of “self“. Are we just the sum total of the electrical impulses jumping from neuron to neuron? a glorified biological computer that can break down just as easily? and if something goes wrong with the circuitry, do we also say goodbye to our sense of self? And just how much of our personality is actually self-determined and how much is merely chemistry?

They tried a million meds and
They strapped me to their beds and
They shrugged and told me ‘that’s the way it goes.’
But finally you hit it!
I asked you just what did it.
You shrugged and said that no one really knows.

It becomes harder to consider the notion of a “soul” or a consciousness independent of our physical brains we realize that so much of our memories and personality is dependent on brain chemistry. The more we understand how the brain works – what drug influences which chemical reaction in the brain which in turn regulates a specific behavioral pattern, the less “mystical” it all becomes. In fact, its a sobering thought – realizing how easy it is to influence a person’s behavior either by nature or by design. Can you blame a person for being  immoral when his brain is telling him to act that way?

The story asks this very question – chemistry or consciousness? who’s really in control? Can you shock people’s brains back to a semblance of normalcy? (Even today, electro-shock therapy is still one of the viable options medical doctors consider to treat certain mental disorders). If one believes in the soul, does the soul turn crazy as well? Where then should be the focal point of treatment?

What happens if the medicine wasn’t really in control?
What happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my brain,
or in my blood, but in my soul

These and many other questions will fill your mind after watching this riveting drama.  If you want a story that’ll get you thinking about how we think, don’t miss out on this.

Next to Normal shows on March 11-27, 2011
Fri & Sat – 8pm, Sat – 2pm,

Sun – 3pm & (March 27)8pm

at the 4th Floor Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium RCBC Makati, Philippines

For more information, visit the show websites at:

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.