Mental Illness Takes to the Stage

Theater Review: Next To Normal

It’s the Friday before New Year’s Eve in downtown Sarasota at  FST – Florida Studio Theater. The piano music is playing through the PA system, the energy is excitable. I sit outside waiting for my party to arrive and observe the well dressed theater goers. They’ve come to see Next to Normal a prize-winning new-age musical.

My party arrives and we find our seats. The theater is an intimate setting where every seat has a clear view of the stage. Stacia Fernandez plays the lead role of Diana in this dramatic story about mental illness. She took a leave of absence from the Broadway Company of Mamma Mia. This role was extremely important to her and said it changed her as a person. “It’s a pivotal role for women in musical theater. There is nothing as dramatic and all-encompassing” says Fernandez.

The play begins and ends taking you through a roller coaster of emotions. I was not prepared for the tears that trickled down my face as I am introduced to a topic I’ve been so lucky to have avoided in my family – mental illness. The actors portray both sides of the struggle, as the husband, son and daughter of a mother who has the mental illness. A very enlightening and real topic most people avoid or don’t know much about.

One of the ways the writer Brian Yorkey conveys frustration from both sides to the audience is by using a lot of profanity throughout the play. It makes sense and the actors do such an amazing job helping you to experience the pain, hurt and realization that most living with mental illness feel like they are living while dying.

Aside from there not being a dry eye in the audience, there is a lighter funnier side. I laughed just as much as I cried a perfect balance. The live music and the chemistry between cast members truly shows you what this play is all about, feeling.

How do you come down from playing a role like this I ask Fernandez? She says, she rides her bike back to her apartment, sits quietly and plays with her dog.

(Review written in Jan. 2012)

Hanging in the lobby of the theater.


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