Nicky McDonnell, who will play Diana in McLean Community Players’ “Next to Normal” next month, is more selective about the roles she takes these days. She gave up professional acting a decade ago, trading six shows a week in the New York City theater world for family life. Now she’s a busy real estate agent and mother of two who satisfies her acting desires in community theater. But in order for McDonnell to consider a part, it has to mean something to her. This one does.
Diana struggles with bipolar disorder, and its effect upon her family is the subject of this rock musical. McDonnell has close family members who have suffered from the mental illness, and she has seen its impact first-hand.
“I think a lot of people may not be familiar with what that’s like,” McDonnell said. “Many days are very normal, there’s nothing unusual, then other days are full of mania, and other days are full of depression.”
McDonnell says that the musical’s writers have, through Diana, crafted an honest, well-written portrayal of woman struggling with the disorder – a woman who navigates the high highs and low lows of the illness, has delusional episodes, and can in one moment be the picture of domestic normalcy while in another make sandwiches for lunch on the floor. And now, as opening night approaches, it’s McDonnell’s tough task to bring Diana to the stage.
“It’s a lot of sort of excavation work into your own memories, and your own life,” McDonnell said. “It’s emotional, but it can also be quite healing in many ways. I’m grateful for that.”
Director Lisa Anne Bailey said that Diana is the play’s most challenging role, because the actress must portray a woman with bipolar disorder who must also “try to be as normal as possible.”
“She is an exquisite actress,” Bailey said of McDonnell. “I am beyond delighted.” Bailey praised her six-person cast, led by McDonnell and longtime McLean Player Brent Stone, who plays Diana’s husband, Dan. They’re joined by Quinn McCord, a familiar face in McLean Players musicals, and young actors Catherine Callahan, Nick DuPre, and Brent’s son, Alex Stone.
It’s a different type of production for the McLean Players to take on, Bailey says, and it’s a different type of musical altogether. The Tony Award-winning musical is almost exclusively sung, with songs leading one into the next in an opera-like structure. And, for the subject matter, it isn’t upbeat and lively as many classic musicals are. But Bailey and McDonnell agree that there’s more to the story than the mental illness that affects the family.
“Bipolar is the cause of the story, but it’s at its very root a story about love, family, growth, and change,” Bailey said.
McDonnell believes that the play isn’t weighed down by the heavy topic of mental illness that it tackles. Rather, she finds it hopeful.
“We are trying to avoid at all costs making this a depressing show, because I don’t think that’s what it’s about,” McDonnell said. “I think there’s a lot of hope there, and a lot of love there, and people’s will to survive is very prevalent in the show.”
“Next to Normal” will be staged Feb. 1 – 16 at the McLean Community Center’s Alden Theatre, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean. Performances are at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $18 – $20. Due to its mature themes and language, this show is intended for viewers ages 15 and older. For more information, call 703-790-9223 or visit mcleanplayers.org.