Mallette’s final production ends on a high note

Caleb Riley

Michelle Walker has played the piano her whole life and considers it an escape.

There have been times of depression in her life and a consuming feeling of invisibility.

The sophomore theatre major plays Natalie Goodman, a character in the musical “Next to Normal,” who struggles with similar feelings and turns to drugs.

“I come from a relatively normal dysfunctional family, not the crazy bipolar household she does. I have never turned to drugs as an escape. But, the feelings and intentions are something I understand and have felt, and what she sings about in the final song is something I firmly believe in,” Walker said. “Day after day, give me clouds and rain and gray. Give me pain if that’s what’s real, it’s the price we pay to feel.”

Onlookers laughed with the Goodman family as they danced around the dinner table and cried with the mother, Diana, as she struggled with depression at USI Theatre’s presentation of the musical Sunday evening.

A few ladies who sat in the front row went through almost an entire box of tissues.

“I think the show Sunday was the best one we’ve had yet,” Walker said. “It takes time and a lot of courage to fully understand and do justice to these characters, and that’s what’s improving with every run we do.”

The musical focuses on the harsh realities present in day-to-day life. It displays a realistic, human look at issues such as depression, mental illness, death and the daily struggles of family life by following the different members of the Goodman family through their coping mechanisms.

Walker said her fellow actors were “absolutely amazing.”

“The Equity actors are incredibly talented and it’s really a joy to be able to act with Erin and Matt (of the Actor’s Equity Association), they’ve really inspired all of us students in the show,” she said. “Luke Bockelman, who plays the doctor, truly gave his best performance on Sunday. Just sitting backstage and listening to him, I could tell he was really in the moment.”

She said Craig Belwood, playing Gabe, did his best “I’m Alive” yet and Daniel Harris, who plays Natalie’s love interest, Henry, gets more charming with every performance.

“I enjoyed it. It was one of the most real musicals I have ever seen,” said Lance Grubb, junior French and Spanish Education major. “It’s an example of real life.”

Grubb said he could relate to the story, having had a sister die at birth, much like how the Goodman family has to cope with the death of a family member.

In the musical, Diana sends her family into a downward spiral while dealing with mental illness and depression from forgetting her past.

“It definitely was emotional,” said Whitney Anderson, junior psychology major. “The cast did a great job portraying their emotions to the audience.”

Anderson said she particularly liked the scene where the family is discussing the possibility of Diana going through electroconvulsive therapy and how it would affect their family.

It allowed the audience to connect with what the family was going through because she is sure all of our families go through similar struggles, she said.

“It had a good perspective of mental health,” Anderson said. “The show dealt with mental health issues, and the cast did a great job showing the dark and realistic side of those issues.”

She said other aspects of the production also impressed her.

“The set was very expansive and it allowed the actors to move freely. It allowed the show to breathe and live in the space fully. The sound, lights, costumes and set – it all worked together to create a cohesive production,” Anderson said.

The two-tiered set was designed to look like a modern house.

It gave the impression of having a kitchen with a table and cabinets, and a living room with a large chair and standing lamp. The upstairs had a bedroom-like space where characters prepped for school and practiced piano.

Some rooms in the “house” served dual purposes. For example, the kitchen became an operating room, where Diana laid on a table during her surgery.

“The actors, as well as the people backstage, were great,” Anderson said. “I noticed the crazy amount of costume changes each character went through throughout the show. I’m sure that took some serious teamwork from the backstage crew. If there were any mistakes, I didn’t notice them.”

USI’s final Mallette Studio Theatre production, “Next to Normal” continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $18 for adults, $16 for seniors (60 and over) & non-USI students, $15 for USI employees and $12 for USI students.