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Desert Rose stages Tony winning, yet dark ‘Next to Normal’

Bryan Durden, Cash Martinez, Christopher Chase, Karen Byers and Clara Lambert star in “Next to Normal” at the Desert Rose Playhouse.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Next to Normal” excavates a family anesthetized by drugs, alcohol and denial with a smile.

This portrait of a bipolar mother and the people she loves and damages opens at the Desert Rose Playhouse on Friday, Aug. 16. The rock musical runs on weekends through Sept. 1.

The show vacillates between the triggering factor in Diana’s illness and its impact on her husband and two children. It’s less about connecting the dots than about life as a state of fragmentation.

“Sometimes the universe gives us an experience that’s so full and authentic that it cracks us open,” director Michael Montroy said of the first time he saw the musical, off-Broadway in 2008. “Everybody by intermission was crying and deeply touched. It’s something I’ve always wanted to work on.”

As Diana tries to grapple with her worsening illness through various treatments, the play explores grief, depression and suicide.

Personality is fragile; always on the brink of decomposition. Diana’s daughter, Natalie, lives constantly in fear of both being invisible to her mother and of turning into her.

Diana’s doctor continually adjusts her medication, with various side effects, until she declares she feels nothing. She goes off her meds, tries drug-free treatments and relapses.

Both her doctors and family trace the core of her breakdown to the loss of an infant son.

“She starts disrupting family gatherings,” Montroy said. “She starts to picture things she imagines in her head. She pulls her daughter into that vortex.

“It makes the father a bit stronger. He’s the one who wants everything to be normal. But he realizes he’s affected, too. It starts to open him up to problems he’s ignored.”

Their late son looms over it all like Patrick Swayze’s character in “Ghost.”

Despite the dark subject matter, the musical ends with a ray of hope, Montroy said.

“They all start finding that light,” he said. “They’re still struggling to find that hope and realize they can’t do it alone.

The Broadway production of “Next to Normal” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards. It won three, for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance By a Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.