Williamsburg Players explore family, mental illness in 'Next to Normal'

The Williamsburg Players are known for leading the community on emotional journeys, and their latest play aims to do so while tackling an often taboo subject. "Next to Normal," a Tony award-winning Broadway musical, explores the lives of a seemingly normal suburban family dealing with mental illness and the challenges and stigmas that accompany it. The Players hope its themes of family, perseverance and hope will move and inspire the community.

"The message is so powerful," said Jeffrey Seyler, the theatre's artistic director. In the upcoming production, he also plays Dan, the father trying to hold everything together in the face of such strife. Seyler presented the idea of "Next to Normal" to the Players more than a year ago. After months of planning and practice, it will soon come to life.

"The talent in the show is amazing, especially these kids," he said. He praised the professionalism of the cast, who quickly nailed the play's broad strokes, allowing for more time to focus on subtle nuances.

Compared with past productions, such as the intricate lake house setting of "On Golden Pond" in May, the set is simple and purposefully devoid of distracting colors. The writing is the star here.

"We really tried to stay true to what Broadway produced because it was pretty much perfect," Seyler said. "It's really not about the costumes, the lights, the sets, that kind of thing. It's more emotional that way."

The production's music also accentuates that emotion. Seyler said the fast-paced style encompasses multiple contemporary genres, including pop rock and country. He hopes the theatrical setting doesn't distract from the important topics up for discussion.

"The mental health aspect of this show is much more important than how quickly we changed backstage," he said. "It's just a powerful story with a lot of hope."

'Here ... it's no different'

The theatre is teaming up with the Williamsburg chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for talks following the Sunday matinee performances of the show, featuring mental health specialists answering questions and providing guidance for those interested in more resources.

"We're thrilled with the partnership," said Carmen Andreoli of the Williamsburg NAMI. "It's very pervasive throughout society. Everyone knows someone."

He lamented the stigma surrounding mental illness; people encounter it more often than they realize. According to NAMI, one in five adults experience mental illness in a given year.

"The writers have really captured the essence of a family living and dealing with mental illness," he said, mentioning a potential side effect of losing one's job as a way in which it can be life-changing. "It does encompass everyone. Here in Williamsburg, it's no different."

NAMI's goal is to educate and support, and director Christina Westenberger aims to echo that through her storytelling. She sees an opportunity for families to realize they're not alone.

"There are resources," she said. "I wish there were resources out there when I was a kid."

Westenberger said she hopes to put a different spin on the show, criticizing many previous iterations for being little more than over-the-top screaming. Her goal is an experience that's not cartoonish, but raw and judgment-free.

"Every character is dealing with some sort of battle," she said. "I hope that we've created a show where we've looked at it honestly. We're doing this right."

She said her cast, including Rani Wachter in the lead role of Diana, accomplishes that. Their performances, coupled with the delicate intricacies of the story, aim to bring the audience into the family's house, much like a part of the family.

"That to me is very important, making that connection," Westenberger said. "I feel like this is the most important thing I've ever done in community theatre."

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

Want to go?

"Next to Normal" plays July 7-16 at the Williamsburg Players Theatre, 200 Hubbard Lane. Adults $20, seniors $18, military $16, students $14. Tickets and showtimes available at williamsburgplayers.org or by phone at 229-0431.

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