Early on in the initial design meetings for the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next To Normal (currently playing in the Omaha Playhouse’s Howard Drew Theatre), director Amy Lane and designer, UNO Professor Steven Williams, tossed around different ideas about the stage design of the dynamic and heavy-hearted musical about a suburban family’s struggle to deal with a mother’s mental disorder.
Lane’s first step with any play is doing thorough research on the topics and subject matter a play deals with. After looking into national statistics on mental health, some glaring figures stood out. Among them, was the fact that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2% of Americans suffer from a mental disorder every year, roughly 1 in 4. In the case of serious mental illness, the figure is about 1 in 17.
Those number were still in Williams’ head as he stood around his neighborhood, looking up and down at all of the houses on his street. If 1 in 4 people in this country suffer from some sort of mental disorder, there’s no doubt that at least one person on his block is going through some tough times, maybe even as tough as the ones the main character Diana faces in the show. But no one outside of your home would know about the struggle you endure, as every house has a painted front door, closing off the rest of world from what happens behind it.
This idea became the inspiration for Next to Normal’s set. The show unfolds before the audience on a two level stage, with a facade of closed doors of all shapes and sizes serving as the backdrop; one large red door in middle of it all.
The set is sturdy and simple, allowing the actors to traverse it in a variety of different ways (rushing up and down spiral staircases, climbing and jumping down from slender scaffolds, etc).
The floor has been painted and finished with a high gloss, giving the stage a reflective effect, a mirror looking back at anyone or anything around it.
Add to it a lighting design featuring a duality of bold and bright colors against dark and bleak blacks and greys, also costumes and props that use the same palate with a gentle subtlety, and you have a production design every bit as nuanced as the performances presented on it.
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