Musical shows effects of mental illness on family

The cast of Next to Normal includes (from left) Palencia, Ong, Palikat, Mae Elliessa and Gui. — Photos: IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/The Star

THE mother has bipolar disorder and the father is trying to keep the marriage and family together. The son gets no attention from anyone except his mother.

How do families cope in such situations?

In Next to Normal, an ongoing musical directed by Nell Ng of Pan Productions, the audience is given the chance to peek into the life of a family that appears normal but are in fact dealing with a loved one’s worsening mental illness.

Originally written by Americans Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the local production of this theatrical piece features a stalwart line-up of talents in Peter Ong, Nikki Palikat, Mae Elliessa, Joshua Gui, Vale Wong and Christian Palencia, the younger brother of Mia, the jazz singer.

Ong plays the father. Stoic and solid, he vows to be at his wife’s side, no matter what. As her condition worsens (she has attempted suicide), he soldiers on.

One issue he has to grapple with is the delicate question of electroconvulsive therapy, which doctors have prescribed to his wife. In trying to convince the wife to say yes, he has to face some stark realities. Which is worse? The symptom or the cure?

The relationship also begs the audience to question, who is the crazy one. The husband who spends hours waiting in the room next door or the patient who is seeing the doctor?

As dramatic as the plot sounds, Palikat who plays the mother assures that it is relatable.

“The actions are very real.

There is no exaggeration,” said the singer-actress.

As Ng explains, it is a play where everyone loves each other but to avoid pain, they hide their feelings.

What is bothering this family? Go back 18 years when tragedy struck. The father chooses to move on but the mother was not able to as she feels responsible.

All this takes a toll on the daughter who is played by Mae Elliessa.

She is only 16 but is fearful that she will end up with bipolar disorder like her mother. The disease is hereditary.

To escape this reality, she pours her energy into her schoolwork. She is a straight-A student and plays the piano.

With all that happening, she is naturally ashamed of her parents. So much so that she tries to prevent her boyfriend, played by Gui, from meeting them.

But he shows up one day for dinner and gets a clue that all may not be quite right when the mother suddenly says “Happy Birthday” to nobody in particular.

“The play is like a peek into other people’s lives. It makes you think. At the end of the day, we must realise that everyone is

fighting a battle. So don’t judge. But this is what people tend to

do when they don’t understand,” said Ng.

Summing it up, Ng said the play is essentially a love story.

The story ends on a positive note and the audience will go home filled with light and full of hope. But they will come away asking real questions about how we perceive and react to those with mental disorders.

The production is intended for audiences aged 13 and above, contains themes and depictions of mental illness, profanity, discussions of self-harm and the loss of a family member.

Next to Normal runs until July 21 at Damansara Performing Arts Centre, H-01, Empire Damansara, Jalan PJU 8/8, Damansara Perdana, Petaling Jaya.

Ticket are priced from RM98 to RM138. Maybank cardmembers get 15% off.

For details, call 03-4065 0001 or visit

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