‘Next to Normal’: A Welcome Portrayal of Living With Mental Illness

Next to Normal
Image Courtesy: Pop Up Productions

Author Mrinal Gokhale attended “Next to Normal,” the musical by Pop Up Productions, hosted at the South Asia Institute in Chicago, Illinois. The following article illustrates the story told in “Next to Normal” in the context of South Asian culture, as well as Gokhale’s reflections and connections to her experience seeing the performance.

It’s no secret that mental health carries great stigma in South Asian culture and that many in the community are striving to change that today. That is why the hit musical “Next to Normal” was recently remade by Pop Up Productions with an Indian cast, for the first time in history.  

Performances of the show were held at the South Asian Institute from May 16 to May 19 and May 23 to May 26, 2024. Before each performance, director Hershey Kaur Suri would speak about how the storyline resembled some themes in her family, yet she never saw actors who looked like her in those roles. 

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Throughout the storyline, it is revealed that Diana Goodman (Nina Jayashankar) and her caucasian husband Dan (Adrian Thornburg) were college sweethearts when they eloped after an accidental pregnancy, trying their hardest to give their family a “normal” life despite Diana’s severe mental illness.  

Originally made in 2008, Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey, made it to Broadway in 2009 and won three awards that year. The story addresses themes like grief and modern-day psychiatry controversies when it comes to mental illness. In addition to adding South Asian representation to the stage, the remake begged the question: to what degree do you help someone versus letting them find the “light” on their own? And what does living “normal” really look like…for a person with mental illness and for their family?

Just Another Day

Dim lighting surrounds Diana, a bronze-skinned, curly-haired beauty in her early 40s, who is wearing a chunni and praying in the living room late at night. Her son Gabe (Arjun Shah) walks in and asks her, “What is going on here?” (in Hindi). She has him leave after some minutes of banter. When Dan comes and asks Diana who she was talking to, she replies she was talking to herself and would be upstairs for sex soon. Next morning, the couple’s teenage daughter Natalie (Asha Grace) points out that the calendar in the kitchen was dated from last April, to which Diana responds “Oh, well Happy Easter!” making Natalie cringe.

Shortly after, Diana starts making puris. Within seconds, she manically throws the puris off the table, one by one. When Dan rushes to her side, Diana appears shocked at herself, but says she was getting an early start at lunches…on the floor. Dan motions for Natalie to leave and tells Diana he’ll take care of the cooking. He insists she should book an appointment with Dr. Fine to discuss this “small blip.”

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Although Diana’s condition was diagnosed years back, it was clear the Goodmans weren’t acknowledging the degree to which Diana was struggling. Because that scene is “just another day,” a nod to the first act’s title. It is common that South Asian families can stay silent about a loved one’s mental health challenges, but it was different seeing the dynamic in a mixed family, while also exploring the intersection of socioeconomic status: they did it without saying “log kya kahenge,” the overused Hindi phrase for “what will people think?”

To Feel or Not to Feel?

I don’t feel like myself! I feel nothing. I feel numb.

Patient stable.

Through a humorous yet poignant song-and-dance exchange between Diana and her psychopharmacologist (Michael Santos), Diana complains about nasty side effects from the many psychiatric drugs she’s tried. She feels less anxious, but more nauseous, among many other side effects. Dr. Fine’s solution is to keep trying. He deems it successful when Diana claims she feels “numb,” a common psychiatric medicine side effect. Diana doesn’t want to experience delusional, psychotic episodes or the manic-depressive mood swings. But she wants to feel her emotions, which shows how hard it can be to find the “right” medicine, if at all.

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The story also touches on the controversial Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), which involves stimulating a seizure in the brain through electrocution as a way of giving it a hard “reset.” ECT is usually recommended for severe mental illness that doesn’t respond to medication. After several treatments, Diana’s hallucinations stop, but she loses years’ worth of memory, including those of her deceased son, who she had hallucinated for years, pre-ECT.

Fast forward to the end, Diana “sees” her son again. She left treatment and left Dan, acknowledging that the marriage had been withering. She was tired of never feeling her feet on the ground every time Dan caught her when she almost “fell.” In a hopeful, yet unfinished ending, the entire family “sees the light,” with Dan agreeing to see a therapist.


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As a teenager, I made a friend who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder, also known as Schizoaffective Disorder. It was not until I became an adult that I saw such controversial portrayals that link these conditions to homelessness, addiction, and violence. If you told me you were Schizophrenic or Bipolar, it would not spark much of a reaction within me, and I don’t know many who feel that way. Years back, I met someone with Bipolar Disorder who told me, “Every time a mass shooting takes place, the news media claims the shooter is either Schizophrenic or Bipolar.”

This is why I felt skeptical before watching “Next To Normal.” After watching, I was pleasantly surprised to witness how humor, song, and dance can convey everything from pain and frustration to grief and joy as it relates to mental illness. I can honestly say that this is one of the few psychosis-related media portrayals that was not a mockery or overly-sensationalized. In a hopeful yet unfinished ending, the entire family “sees the light,” literally…it was the only time the full lighting came on throughout the entire production. And as cliffhanger-like as it may feel, that’s how healing from severe mental illness is: messy and nonlinear. 

By Mrinal Gokhale

Mrinal Gokhale is a writer, author and speaker based in Wisconsin. Her first book, Saaya Unveiled: Mental Health Spotlighted, is … Read more ›