TheatreSquared’s new musical Next to Normal continues this weekend in Fayetteville.
The show, which our reviewer Tobias Wray called the “best of its breed, in a class with only a few gritty peers” runs through May 12th at Nadine Baum Studios.
Todd Taylor, a third-year University of Arkansas MFA playwright, recently caught up with Rita Harvey, who plays “Diana” in the show for this interview.
Playing the character of Diana presents the special challenge of portraying someone who’s battling mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. What were your feelings about taking this role?
It scared me to death, honestly. I knew that to do this part I’d have to go to some [emotional] places that are truly terrifying, and live there. But I knew it would be a huge growth experience for me, and I knew it was something I wanted to challenge myself to do at this stage of my career. I’m really thrilled I did it because it’s been a life-changing experience.
The problem of mental illness is so pervasive in our society that virtually everyone has been touched by it in some way, whether by their own struggle or that of someone they know well. Does it feel like dangerous territory for a musical?
It’s terribly dangerous. But at the same time, the fact that we as artists can take something that’s so often stigmatized and treat it with respect and really give a voice to it, that is such a privilege and an honor. It’s very cathartic because I think everyone can relate to it in some way. I’ve had to take medication for panic attacks, and I hated it because even though I didn’t feel panicked, I didn’t feel the good stuff either. So when Diana is singing “I Miss the Mountains,” I understand her point of view. At the end of the day though, it’s not a play about mental illness; it’s a play about relationships.
I might have guessed that because of the weightier subject matter, there might be more talking and less singing in this musical. Instead, it’s sung-through almost the entire show.
I think that’s the way the contemporary musical is headed. We accept it when characters go from speaking to singing in a conventional musical, but it’s always a little jarring to jump in and out of it. Singing it through the whole way allows you to bridge that gap. Especially in a musical like this one, it helps you to live in the reality of the moment a little better.
You have an extensive background in opera and also do a lot of touring as a concert performer. What is it you especially like about the music in this play?
I’m a music geek, and I love the way the music illustrates the story and the mood of this show. When you hear the harmonies, they can be so descriptive. Like the scene where Diana is undergoing hypnosis–the music really takes you to that place. It moves from more quiet contemplative music to something with more of an upbeat rock feel, so that it really captures the way bipolar disorder works.
You’re entering the third weekend of a four-week run for this show. How has the performance grown in that time?
I feel like it’s deepening with every show. There are actors who develop a performance over an extended run, and that’s it. You know what you’re going to get each night. But [director] Amy [Herzberg] does such an amazing job of forcing us to live on the edge of the emotional cliff, of making sure each moment is coming from your most honest place. It makes your performance so exhilarating and exciting and real every single night.