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Playhouse actors get into 'Next to Normal' characters with professional help

Duluth News-Tribune - 3/1/2024

Mar. 1—DULUTH — Working on a show that delves into mental health themes, such as the Duluth Playhouse's upcoming production of "Next to Normal," can be a daunting task.

Director and Playhouse Executive Director Wed Drummond brought in a mental health consultant to help the actors portray the seemingly typical Goodman family as they navigate the complexities of love, loss and mental health while rehearsing the show, which opens March 15.

The cast consulted Michelle D. Sherman, a board-certified, licensed clinical psychologist based in the Twin Cities who works with supporting families impacted by mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sherman provided knowledge about real-world treatment for the mental illnesses the Goodman family's mother, Diana, experiences throughout the show.

"When you're working with this material every night, it does take a toll on performers to submerge yourself into this world," said

SJ Olson,

who plays Henry, Natalie Goodman's love interest. "It can be hard to step away from that at the end of the night. But Michelle came in and talked with us about the content of the show and also how to care for ourselves while engaging with some pretty intense content. And how to engage with the characters while still separating ourselves at the end of the night.

"We talked a lot about what's true, what's maybe a bit outdated. Even though the show was just written in 2007, we're still learning so much more about these illnesses," Olson said. "And in the practice of medicine, things are constantly changing, especially in psychiatric care."

Olson said some of the concepts from Sherman will help them in future roles where there's less separation between their characters and their own personalities.

"She talked a lot about having a resilience toolbelt and having things readily accessible so that if I do need to separate myself from a show, I feel like I'll be better prepared to do that," Olson said.

Jake S. Nelson also found the ideas presented by Sherman helpful in developing his character of Gabe Goodman, the family's teenage son who isn't quite what he appears to be.

"She brought this beautiful bag of reminders with little trinkets such as a rock, which reminds you that while this is heavy stuff, you can put it down and step away when you need to," Nelson said. "And a thing of bubbles, which reminds us of having fun and being open to play."

This is Nelson's

return to Duluth and the Playhouse

as a recent University of Minnesota Duluth graduate based in the Twin Cities. Nelson said Gabe was a dream role that's been on his list since high school.

"There's so much complexity to this role in particular. It's a vocal challenge and so much to dig into," Nelson said. "And I felt like the Playhouse would be a really safe space to dive into this material because we have a really supportive and talented group of people who gel well."

Another actor stepping into a dream role for this show is Thomas Bevan, playing Dan Goodman, who is making their debut on the Playhouse stage.

"The first song I was exposed to from this show is 'I've Been,' which Dan sings halfway through the first act. And I've been waiting to age into Dan's age bracket since then," Bevan said. "So I sent in my audition video singing that song and thankfully, Wes took a chance on me. Getting to sing that song every night is going to be a wonderful check on the bucket list of my theater dreams."

As the father of the Goodman family, Bevan says that Dan is "living on a latte and a prayer," to quote a lyric from the opening song, "Another Day." Dan is doing everything in his power to hold the household together and seemingly create the perfect family, according to Bevan.

"He wants his life to be what he thinks life is supposed to be and we get to go on this great journey with Dan trying to accept the way things are," Bevan said.

Bevan took inspiration from a guest speaker Sherman brought in who shared firsthand experience about living with a spouse who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"I was able to ask him questions like, 'How do you approach her when she's in a depressive state? What about when she's in a manic state?'" Bevan said. "That's informed a lot of the scene work and has just been an unbelievable resource."

Jen Burleigh-Bentz saw the show on Broadway in 2009 with Brian d'Arcy James and Alice Ripley as leads Dan and Diana Goodman and knew then what a challenge the role of Diana would be for her to take on.

"It's probably the hardest role I've ever done, both musically and in terms of finding a real grounding for a character who doesn't feel grounded," Burleigh-Bentz said. "She cycles all over the map genre-wise. It's interesting to take this storyline and focus it while playing a character who is unfocused."

Burleigh-Bentz is no stranger to the Playhouse or musicals as she's appeared on Broadway as Tanya in "Mamma Mia!" and recently took on the

Witch on the NorShor stage in "Into the Woods."

She said she found the challenge of Diana slightly less daunting with the help of specialists like Sherman.

"It gave us a real backbone of truth to work with. We talked to a gentleman who lived with a partner with bipolar disorder and that was so informative," Burleigh-Bentz said. "He's lived it and we're trying to be true to it."

Tickets are on sale for "Next to Normal," which runs from March 15-31 at the NorShor Theatre. Visit the theater box office Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., call 218-733-7555 or visit


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