Pinole's small community theater becomes a steaming, fiery cauldron of raw emotion as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner unfolds on the tiny stage.
Director Brian Katz was convinced that the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about bipolar disorder would work in an intimate theater, and he proved himself correct with the production that plays at the Pinole Community Playhouse through Feb. 16.
No matter the weather outside, audiences will swelter before this blistering furnace of a family trying to cope with a bipolar mother, Diana (Lisa Maria Newton), who is trying to deal with the alternate universe in which she so often lives.
By experiencing the story in such a small space, the audience can't help but get caught up in the unfolding drama. This not only makes the show a bracing piece of theater, but an emotionally engaging slice of life.
And, yep, it is a musical, a rock musical at that. And it has a remarkably tuneful score and wonderful lyrics that are both catchy and help move the plot along. The score moves from country rock to something close to power ballads as it surveys the inner and outer turmoil of the family's life.
The show is played on a simple set consisting of a couple of risers, a few pieces of furniture and a lot of imagination by set designer Fernando Ochoa.
Yet, this is hardly a minimalistic production, thanks both to Katz's direction and amazingly realized characters created by the actors.
It is Newton, not surprisingly, who dominates the action with a circus of emotions that allow her to journey through the physical environment she manages to grasp very tentatively, and her internal world consisting of people living and dead. Her life changes unwittingly depending on the medications she is and isn't taking. She does this psycho-pharmacological ballet in and out of reality with the help of her doctor (Perry Aliado), and with the constant encouragement of her son, Gabe (Brian Dauglash), who creates a strong character mostly lurking in the shadows and corners of the set.
Diana's long-suffering husband, Henry (Michael Scott-Wells), is something of a case study in his own right. At first blush, he appears to be super-dad, thriving and flourishing no matter how bad things get. But it's not really like that, and Scott-Wells creates a complex and memorable character.
Rounding out the family is youngest daughter Natalie (Nicolina Akraboff), sweet 16 and working at being in advanced-placement everything. She is a super-achiever who is doing it all, just to be noticed through all the family clutter. She creates a fine character teetering between innocence and guile. She eventually goes off with a new boyfriend (Alex Bonte), a pothead with a slightly more lax look at life.
Through it all, this is a show with a whole lot of heart, and much to say, not only about mental illness, but the nature of families and human relationships.
Contact Pat Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'NEXT TO NORMAL'
By Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, presented by Pinole Community Players
Through: Feb. 16
Where: Pinole Community Playhouse, 601 Tennent Ave. , Pinole
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $20-$23; 510-724-9844, www.pinoleplayers.org