If ever there was a time for theater, it’s now. There are shows all over Fairfield, New Haven and Litchfield Counties. The theaters are all a quick drive away and all of these theaters have free or reasonable parking. Long Wharf has a world premiere production of Matthew Barber’s Fireflies, a romance with a star-studded cast. Yale Repertory Theatre has Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a political powerhouse of a play. In Monroe the Two Planks Theater Company has August: Osage County on the boards.
In addition to these traditional theaters, there’s also plenty of university and college shows taking place. I don’t review student productions, but when I learned that Sacred Heart University (SHU) in Fairfield was doing Next to Normal, a beautiful heart-rending musical, that has earned a worldwide reputation, I couldn’t resist speaking to one of the student actors.
Michael Villanueva plays the son in Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s musical. It is a very challenging role because his mother suffers from manic depression, which affects the entire suburban family.
According to Villanueva, a junior at SHU, the theater department’s head and program director Jerry Goehring keeps the cast from getting too under the skin of these characters. “He’ll bring in a pizza and we’ll sit around and chat and have fun like college students. Jerry has taught us how to turn on and off the role. So when I’m not on the stage, I’m not the character I play. I’m Michael,” said the mindful and articulate student.
Because of this woman’s illness, her husband an architect misses work, and her daughter who desperately needs a mother is at a loss. This family does not live a “normal” life because one of its members is mentally ill. Mom is in and out of therapy. Difficult decisions are constantly being considered concerning mom’s doctors and procedures. Schedules are continually interrupted and the only thing one can expect in this family is the unexpected. Of course, the characters all appear to be normal to the outside world, but what goes on in this family is deeply moving. What triggers the mother’s suffering has a lot to do with the son, but I will not ruin the show by going into detail about that here. See it and you’ll understand why this show was such as smash hit and why I wanted to alert you to this production.
It’s perfect fare for a university production and that Jerry Goehring director of the theater program at SHU picked this most meaningful play for college students can only lead the way to understanding and empathizing with those who suffer from mental illness. The music is in rock opera format so it is lively. One thing is for sure, if you see this show, you will never forget it. And it’s practically playing in your backyard.
Also in the cast are: Diane – Julia Vezza; Dan – Henley Solomon; Gabe – Michael Villanueva; Natalie – Delaney Lynch; Henry – Chris Faccenda; Dr. Madden – Justin Weigel. The show plays Nov. 2- 5 and 9-12.
Joanne Greco Rochman was a founding member of the Connecticut Critic’s Circle and Arts is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]