Timely play explores a family’s struggle with mental illness

NEXT TO NORMAL

With mental health and the downsizing of mental health facilities in Louisiana so much in the news lately, was it by design that the upcoming Southern Repertory Theater musical production of “Next to Normal” deals with this sensitive subject?

According to Aimee Hayes, producing artistic director for Southern Rep, the timing of the play dealing with mental illness was just serendipitous.

“I’ve been waiting four years for the rights to this award-winning show to come available,” Hayes said. “It just so happened to come about now, while all this talk about mental illness is going on.”

Making its New Orleans premiere, “Next to Normal” opens with two previews on May 16 and 17 at the Contemporary Arts Center before officially opening on May 18. The show, which won three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize during its Broadway stint, runs until June 9, and tickets are now on sale.

Featuring close to 40 musical numbers, “Next to Normal” is billed as “A heartbreaking but beautifully told story about a suburban mother’s fight with mental illness and her family’s attempt to hold it all together for her and themselves.”

The Southern Rep production is directed by Blake Coheley and stars New Orleans area native Leslie Castay, a 20-year Broadway veteran who returned home with her husband and two young daughters in 2005.

In her role as the mother, Diana Goodman, Castay has been prepping herself on the subject matter.

“I’ve been doing a lot of research on mental illness,” she said. “Over the Christmas holidays I was reading all sorts of books about people who are bipolar, manic depressive and the like.”

Castay has also spent time with a friend of hers who is a psychiatrist who administers ECT (electro convulsive therapy), a procedure her character undergoes in the show. In addition, she has performed other roles involving characters in similar situations, most notably “Little Edie” Beale in a production of “Grey Gardens.”

Commenting on her role in the “Next to Normal” production and the issue in general, Castay said, “It’s very interesting to play someone who is mentally ill because you start to realize that they don’t see themselves as being not normal. That’s what they live with every day, so they see it as normal, even though they might not be like the rest of society. This production shows how a family adapts into their daily life something that might not be considered the mainstream.

“It’s a powerful show with some great musical numbers,” Castay added.

Other members of the cast include Richard Hutton, who plays her empathetic husband, Dan Goodman; Clint Johnson, as her deceased son Gabriel, who periodically appears to her in visions; and Madison Kerth, a NOCCA freshmen who did a national tour in the title role of “Annie,” as Diana’s daughter Natalie.

Matt Thompson is Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend, and Michael Krikorian is Dr. Madden, the psychiatrist who counsels and treats Diana.

Jefferson Turner is the musical director for this production.

Since her return to the New Orleans area, just six weeks before Hurricane Katrina, Castay has not lacked for work in her field. Most recently, she held down a supporting role in all 12 episodes of the USA Network show “Common Law” in 2012 and was recently featured in the film “Beautiful Creatures,” shot in Covington and St. Francisville.

She also had a rave-reviewed one-woman cabaret show at the now-shuttered Le Chat Noir in 2011, in addition to roles in other local productions.

On June 4, Castay will join a cast of local vocalists in Southern Rep’s debut of “Les Bon Temps Soirée: An Elegant Evening of Cabaret,” at the Windsor Court Hotel.

Does she plan to return to Broadway someday? Maybe, but not yet.

“I think my days of eight shows a week on Broadway are over at this point in my life, at least until my children are out of school,” Castay said. “It would just be too disruptive going back and forth or on tour. I want to keep my family ‘next to normal.’ ”

NOTE: The Friday, May 17, preview of “Next to Normal” will be a special fundraiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. $5 of each ticket sold will be donated to NAMI and, at the end of the show, speakers from NAMI will be on hand to discuss the issue of mental illness in the Greater New Orleans Area.