Family dynamics of living with mental illness explored in theatrical production of Next to Normal

The OnStagers' production of the rock musical “Next to Normal” about a family coping with mental illness premieres at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Performances continue Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee Saturday at 2 p.m.

The play hinges on character Diana Goodman who has bipolar disorder and hallucinations, played by Mick Lonati, ’17, of Franklin, Mass., a double major in theater and elementary education.

“The musical centers around how a mental disorder can resonate throughout a family,” said assistant director Nate Vilandre, ’16, of Shrewsbury, Mass., who’s majoring in theater with a communications minor.

There is a plot twist early in the play but Vilandre declines to talk about it publicly so the audiences can find it themselves.

The play climaxes with a powerful decision by Lonati’s character.

“There is a beautiful, sad moment at the end,” Vilandre said. “Diana makes a decision where she shows a strength everybody desires to see in themselves.”

Next to Normal is a departure from recent productions of the OnStagers. Past shows have included plays such as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Tartuffe,” and “Rent” several years ago.

“We really go with the taste of our members,” Vilandre said.

The OnStagers have 40-50 members including actors, stage crew, set designers and producers.

Next to Normal premiered on Broadway in 2009 and won three Tony Awards that year. Then it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The rock musical shows that mental illness shouldn’t be treated as a taboo and at the end of the day people around those with mental illnesses still need to live their lives, Vilandre said.

“Mental illness is unfortunately everywhere, whether a family member or a friend,” Vilandre said. “It deals with not just one person dealing with illness but how other people deal with it.”

The play has some light-hearted moments as family members banter and joke with each other.

The cast includes Michael Semonelli ’17, of Wilmington, Mass.; Emily Bertolami ’18, of Burlington, Mass.; Liam Divine ’18, of Franklin, Mass.;  Mike Ralphs ’17, of Billerica, Mass.; and assistant professor the Rev. Rick Piatt, O.S.A. It is directed by Brian Boruta, of The Umbrella Community Arts Center in Concord, Mass.

Admission is $5 for students, faculty and staff; $10 for the public.

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