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Living on a latte and a prayer

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review 

There are times when I think getting through “Just Another Day” will be an accomplishment.

But imagine what it’s like for husband Dan Goodman (Anthony Donovan) to come downstairs and find his wife Diana (Rebekah Rawhouser) laying out bread slices on the floor to make sandwiches for the family. She doesn’t stop at four; she seems determined to lay out the whole loaf. She says she’s trying to “get ahead on lunches.”

Dan is used to this strange behavior. Diana’s suffered from severe bipolarity for the past 16 years, and he has been “living on a latte and a prayer” and trying to get through another day all that time. But he admits that much of the time, he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

(l to r) Conner Boyd (Dr. Madden) and Rebekah Rawhouser (Diana) discuss the many treatments for her bipolarity (Photo courtesy of Coronado Playhouse)

Chad Oakley directs Coronado Playhouse’s lovely production of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 pop/rock musical “Next to Normal,” now playing through June 17.

Bipolar disorder can’t be cured, but it can be managed, at least to a certain extent. Dr. Madden (Connor Boyd) offers three possibilities: medication, hypnosis and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT — or in laymen’s terms, shock treatments). Diana doesn’t trust hypnosis and strenuously objects to ECT for a very real reason. It frequently results in memory loss.

But she doesn’t much like pills either, and after a while, like many bipolar patients, she just stops taking the medications. Her reasoning is summed up in the show’s best song, the poignant “I Miss the Mountains,” in which she decries the leveling effect of the pills.

(l to r) SeeJay Lewis (Gabe) and Anthony Donowan (Dan) (Photo courtesy of Coronado Playhouse)

Meanwhile, 16-year-old daughter Natalie (Chloe Marcotte) has pretty much had to mother herself. Natalie is a budding pianist who could have used some motherly advice about classmate and new boyfriend Henry (Peter Armado).

Diana has another problem. She’s never come to terms with the long-ago death of her infant son Gabe. In fact, she “sees” and talks to him (SeeJay Lewis) often, even bakes him a 17th-birthday cake, much to Natalie’s embarrassment (Henry had joined the family for dinner that night).

These are difficult issues to treat anywhere, let alone onstage, but Kitt and Yorkey give us such honesty and directness along with tenderness. And even humor in script and libretto, and this cast delivers at such a high level, we can’t help but engage and care about this family.

Newcomer Rawhouser is a find as Diana, with a stunning voice and flawless delivery to go with her utterly convincing acting.

Lewis’ phantom Gabe manages to be raw, scary, and heartbreaking all at once. He’s a talent to watch, with a powerful, lithe voice. I last saw him in OnStage’s fine “Spring Awakening,” and he’s better every time I see him.

Marcotte is another heartbreaker as the virtually motherless Natalie, deserted even at the final recital that will determine her college offers. But she’ll melt your heart when she sings to her mom in “Maybe”:

“I don’t need a life that’s normal

That’s way too far away

But something next to normal

Would be okay.”

Armado is charming as Natalie’s persistent but often puzzled boyfriend Henry, who just wants to take her to the dance.

Donovan is convincing as Diana’s loving but nearly broken husband Dan.

Boyd’s voice isn’t as powerful as the others, but he’s convincing as the shrink who wants to help but knows he really can’t “fix” this problem.

Kudos to music director/bassist Martín Martiarena’s fine six-man band that plays from the rear of the stage, too.

(l to r) SeeJay Lewis (Gabe), Rebekah Rawhouser (Diana’s) dead son that she
sees an talks to often and her husband Anthony Donovan (Dan) who deals
every day with Daina’s bipolar disorder. (Photo courtesy of Coronado Playhouse)

Jacob Sampson’s dual-level set looks great (and properly angular), and Josh Olmstead’s lighting uses brightly colored, sometimes blinking lights to atmospheric advantage.

“Next to Normal” is an unflinching look at bipolar disorder and its effect on the Goodman family, with music to match. Sometimes unnerving (not to mention extremely difficult), sometimes lyrical, always appropriate. It will have its effect on you, too. The theater has appropriately placed tissues on each table. You’ll need them.

— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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