Musical tackles bipolar disorder and its effect on families

    You don’t typically hear people sing about bipolar disorder or electroshock therapy — but a musical opening at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Wednesday tackles these tough issues. The plot portrays a family deeply affected by mental illness.

    “Next to Normal” centers around Diana Goodman, a suburban mom struggling with bipolar disorder, trying to hold on to her family and life.

    As her symptoms worsen, Diana tries electroshock therapy — which robs her of her memory. Her husband and teenage daughter try to be supportive and understanding but struggle with their own problems.

    Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010 — a rare honor for a musical — and has gotten rave reviews around the world.

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    Writer Brian Yorkey says the script was developed after many conversations and feedback sessions with people affected by mental illness. One important lesson for Yorkey was just how many people deal with this issue, and he said the personal stories made it clear that he had to get this “as right as he could.”

    Actress Kristine Fraelich portrays Diana in the Arden production and says the musical has an affirmative message for people living with mental illness.

    “You are not a crazy person because you are struggling with mental illness, you are just trying to make it in the world,” she says.

    Fraelich, who interviewed and studied people with bipolar disorder to prepare for her role, said she hopes the play will promote open conversations about mental illness, an issue often shrouded in shame and silence.

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