Diana, the mother (Kristine Fraelich), is bipolar: self-destructive, hallucinating, unable to deal with life's simplest responsibilities. The lyrics ask the central question: Who's crazy? The one who hopes - her relentlessly devoted husband, Dan (James Barry)? Or the one who can't cope? After years of psychopharmaceutical failures, the psychiatrist (Brian Hissong) suggests electric shock therapy.
Teenage daughter Natalie (Rachel Camp) is the family's collateral damage: She is invisible to her parents despite her perfect grades, her Mozart recitals, her free ride at Yale. Her brother (Robert Hager) haunts the family: seductive, charming, predatory. The only redeeming sweetness is Henry (Michael Doherty), Natalie's boyfriend.
Some of what is so exhausting about watching the show is the intensity of everyone's pain and worry and helplessness; it is almost unrelieved misery until the conclusion, when the whole cast gathers to sing an affirmation - not of the possibility of happiness but only of the courage to face the future and survive.
The music, by Tom Kitt (under Eric Ebbenga's direction), is exciting, and the lyrics, by Brian Yorkey, are sometimes clever, sometimes mournful; Yorkey's dialogue seems absolutely authentic and plausible, delivered by actors/singers who make their characters interesting as well as heartbreaking. There are no villains here, just bad luck.
Next to Normal
Through Nov. 4 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. Tickets: $36-$48. Information: 215-922-1122, or www.ardentheatre.org.