Dramas about disability are increasingly plentiful, on stage or screen. But they are still tricky to bring off with a minimum of melodrama, and a balance of candor and sensitivity.
Two compelling shows that delve into the realities of serious mental and physical impairment, and the challenges families face coping with it, are currently on view in Seattle: “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” (which ends its run this weekend) and the musical “Next to Normal.”
“Joe Egg” by Peter Nichols broke new theatrical ground in its 1967 debut — not only for its unsparing frankness about a couple raising a severely disabled daughter, but also for its approach to the subject. It was laced with stand-up black comedy that seemed to some inappropriate — and to others, right on target.
In the production by the new company Thalia’s Umbrella, which Daniel Wilson has capably mounted in ACT Theatre’s Bullitt Cabaret space, a strong cast taps into the play’s bleak vaudeville humor as well as heart-rending sadness.
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British schoolteacher Brian (Terry Edward Moore) can only handle the severe brain damage of his pretty 10-year old daughter by constantly clowning and cutting up. He makes fun of his lumpish students, nicknames his kid Joe Egg, plays the lascivious flirt with his wife, Sheila (Leslie Law), who is a good sport but the only grown-up in the house.
But one night, on the eve of a desultory visit by a pair of unconsciously patronizing friends of Sheila’s (played by the spot-on Brandon Whitehead and Carol Roscoe), the game is up. Brian gives in to the anguish and anger he’s been dousing with one-liners for a decade.
While giving us the nitty-gritty on the day-to-day realities of caretaking for a barely communicative, wholly dependent child, the play also strips a deceptively functional-family unit down to its shaky foundation. When Brian’s drastic attempt to end his family’s suffering once and for all is thwarted, can a marriage based on sacrifice and denial stand?
Moore’s accent is too thick by half at times. But he gives a powerful performance in all other respects, as he gradually shrugs off Brian’s antic charade and gives way to sheer desperation. He and the excellent Law have tangible stage chemistry, and there are fine turns by Susan Corzatte as Brian’s fussy mum — whose own emotional limitations are made very clear — and by young Aidyn Stevens, who plays Joe Egg as she is, and as she might have been.
Someone flees the nest in “Joe Egg,” and also in “Next to Normal,” at Balagan Theatre, in a coproduction with Contemporary Classics.
Written by Seattle-area native Brian Yorkey, and composed in a white-hot pop-rock mode by Tom Kitt, the Tony-honored tuner takes a no-holds-barred look at the collective dysfunction of a family reeling under the burden of mental illness.
This is one atypically tough-minded Broadway musical.
Diana Goodman (Beth DeVries) has sharpened her own sardonic wit over the years she’s struggled with bipolar disease. In her case, it was a family tragedy that sparked what might have been a genetic disposition toward mental illness.
We watch her as she slips, tumbles, restabilizes and tries every new drug and therapy her psychiatrist (Ryan McCabe) can come up with, to little avail. Meanwhile, her relations suffer more quietly.
Her self-sacrificing husband, Dan (Auston James), is unceasingly attentive and protective of his wife, perhaps to a fault.
And their bright teenage daughter, Natalie (Keaton Whittaker), after a lifetime of squelching her own needs so her mother’s can be met, begins to rebel and act out.
Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry (Ryan Hotes), a kid with the same protective instincts as her dad, and Gabe (Kody Bringman), a teen son who pops in and out of the picture, are the remaining links in an intimate show that zips along under Brandon Ivie’s assured direction.
Yorkey’s lyrics uncannily capture the seesawing mindset of Diana (“I Miss the Mountains,” “Wish I Were Here”) in a galvanizing score that demands vocal fireworks as it alternates powerhouse electric rock with tender balladry.
The bar is set high here for singers, and not every cast member consistently meets it. But thankfully, DeVries nails her daunting part. And though the singers are sometimes at the mercy of an overly zealous drummer, the band otherwise delivers.
I wondered why Seattle needed another production of “Next to Normal” so soon after the 2011 national tour visited here. At any rate, it’s another chance for those interested in experiencing the tough love “Next to Normal” faces up to. And though this family unit also isn’t inviolable, it ends on a realistic note of hope. As Diana sums it up, one doesn’t need to be happy, to be happy to be alive.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org