The best things about this rock musical about a bipolar woman are its title and its message. For those of us who strive to be "normal", the title makes way for many variations of normal, with ample room for much individuality. In life (and statistics) we see that one common way to define normal is not as an absolute, but rather as relative. This can be organized by a bell shaped curve.
The implicit message in the play is that dealing with one's emotions straight up will make you "next to normal", which is surely good enough. Advocating that we try to be next to normal rather than a pre-packaged normal makes great sense, allowing room for individuality. It emphasizes the importance of acknowledging your emotions, whatever they are, to being healthy and normal enough.
The concept next to normal borrows from British pediatrician Donald Winnicott's notion of a "good enough mother". This term meant to avoid idealizing any one image of motherhood, but rather to emphasize instead the critical importance of emotionally attuning to one's child. There are so many ways to be unique and adequate, both as a person and as a parent. Routinely ignoring one's emotions (and those of others) - while obliviously acting out one's impulses - is clearly not one of them.
This pulitzer prize winning show mockingly reveals the limits of modern psychiatry and our wish to fix everything with a pill ... or better yet with twenty. It also explores how seemingly unbearable emotions that get buried inside us can ruin our minds and ultimately our lives.
It seems an odd topic for a musical, but perhaps it reflects our culture's attempt to handle the disappointments that have followed in the wake of the psychopharmacolgical revolution. Talk therapy seems no more effective than pills in this play, although it does actually seem to produce some awareness of what has gone wrong, and what needs to happen.
In reviewing this musical, Ben Brantley of the New York times wrote that: "to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts ... this production assesses the losses that occur when wounded people are anesthetized — and not just by the battery of pharmaceutical and medical treatments to which Diana is subjected, but by recreational drugs, alcohol and that good old American virtue, denial with a smile.... This show is less about connecting the dots than about life as a state of fragmentation." Well said. It is for us to connect the dots.
This musical reveals the dangers of not acknowledging one's emotions in an ongoing way, especially when they are intense. It portrays the pain and dissolution that can result when emotions left lingering inside us are pushed underground. It shows how they can reemerge in ways that are destructive to ourselves, and to those we love. Avoiding our personal emotional truths is way too costly, for everyone. Life is filled with loss and fear, we must each find a way to manage these painful affects without burying them underground; so that we can grow.
Next to Normal is a powerful advertisement for how you can benefit from becoming an Emotional Detective.