"It's like a great HBO drama," Charleston Stage Director Julian Wiles says of its latest production, Next to Normal. "It deals with interesting people and interesting situations and how people cope, and so it's very powerful. It's very moving. I think audiences will be really taken with the power of the performance and also the incredible professionalism and quality of the performers."
Opening on Valentine's Day for a run at the Dock Street Theatre, Charleston Stage is the first to bring Next to Normal to the Holy City. A recent Broadway hit earning both a Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as a Tony for best original score, the production examines family struggles and several forms of mental illness, including substance abuse and bipolar disorder.
"It's an amazing subject to deal with — a family dealing with someone who has bipolar disorder — but also just the way they tell the story. They decided to do it as a musical, and most musicals are not serious. They decided to use this pop rock score, and they decided to sing almost all of it."
Pulling strong talent from all over, the play features professional artists from Phoenix and New York in addition to College of Charleston actress, Celeste Riddle. CofC professor Charlie Calvert is guest scenic designer, creating an original set based on his own discovery of the play and its context. And music director Sam Henderson has handpicked top-notch musicians from the Charleston community to form the play's especially important live band.
"It's not really a musical about a disease," Wiles insists. "It's a musical about people. And about a family and the doctors and everyone involved and how each of them approached it and how each of them tries to come to terms with the things that are happening to them. So it's kind of a metaphor for everyone in life: we don't all have bipolar disorder, but we all have issues and traumatic things that happen to us, to many of us, so it deals with a lot of those subjects and how people interact."
That's why Wiles has arranged two talkbacks with a panel of mental health experts from the community and MUSC's department of psychiatry to follow both Sunday matinees on February 23 and March 2.
Dr. Lee Lewis, a former Charleston Stage actor-turned-MUSC physician, will moderate the discussion, which will also include actual patients. "They will talk about the issues the play dealt with and how they reacted to what they saw, and then we'll answer questions from the audience about those things," Wiles says.
"One of the things I think is important for the community to know is that the states in our country, because of the recession, have cut $1.6 billion in mental health funding in the last four or five years," he says. "And as we know from Newtown, it's something we still need. There are not enough meds and not enough treatment for people. So it somewhat brings an awareness to that as well. We wanted to be sure that people who saw it had the opportunity to know where treatment is available, what kind of treatment can be found in our own community. And we're making that information available."