Milwaukee’s Kith & Kin Theatre Collective Presents Pulitzer Prize Winner: Next To Normal!

Kith & Kin Artistic Director, Kimberly Laberge, brings another challenging musical drama to a Milwaukee area stage with Next To Normal. The musical’s book and lyrics were written by Brian Yorkey with the rock music by Tom Kitt. Next To Normal won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama.

This is the second time that I have experienced theater in the charming and inviting Interchange Theater Co-op’s black box theater. And this time, the room was filled with rock music telling a very difficult but engaging drama. We meet a very contemporary American family, mother, father, son, and daughter. And they have a secret…or maybe not a secret…but a dynamic that they are trying to gloss over until they can’t anymore.

the entire cast

So let’s meet our family! Diana Goodman is the mother, and at K&K she is played by Wendy Rightler. Her loving and supportive husband, Dan, is played by Patrick Jones. Sanaa Harper is their somewhat distant but determined daughter, Natalie and Daniel Bingham plays her brother Gabriel. There are two other cast members, Cory J O’Donnell who plays Natalie’s love interest and Justin Spanbauer who plays the part of two different doctors.

Dan and Diana foreground, Natalie and Henry to the right

Diana and Dan married relatively young and apparently very much in love. But Diana is struggling with a number of mental health issues…struggling for about sixteen years. Wendy Rightler’s portrayal of Diana is spot on throughout as Diana passes from lucidity to a bit of depression to confusion and back around. And Wendy’s vocals here are incredible…this is a particularly challenging role emotionally as well as vocally. Diana has the majority of the singing parts here. One of the family ‘secrets’ is how serious Diana’s illness can be at times…and Wendy’s performance here let’s us feel all of it and we wish we could intercede at some point.

Dan, as played by Patrick Jones, is desperately in love with Diana and struggles with her struggles. And he is willing to help and support her in any and every way that he can. And although he thinks he feels her pain, Diana lets him know that he just doesn’t quite get it. Patrick lets us see how Dan is feeling, his intense need to help, and his loss and frustration at his lack of success.

Henry and Natalie

And our teen-age love interest? Sanaa Harper playing Natalie is a challenging and very determined teen with a goal and path clearly in mind…but she feels that she is on her own. Until Cory J O’Donnell as Henry strolls into her life. Of course there is the initial hesitancy, some on and off again moments, and little personal victories along the way. Sanaa and Cory were the ideal casting to represent this couple…and Sanaa can really effectively belt out the songs than bring us into the heart of soul of Natalie.


And then we have Gabriel…Daniel Bingham is absolutely amazing here. Gabriel has a key role in Next To Normal and Daniel inhabits it directly. His fluid movements across stage invest the character with the necessary presence and attitude. And his interactions with Diana and Dan are linchpin moments in the story…I don’t want to say more here.

And is there a doctor in the house? Well yes, there are actually two, both played by Justin Spanbauer in very very different guises!

Diana and Doctor Madden

Next To Normal is a hard charging rock musical with surprising little dialogue. And the cast members each have the range and strengths best suited their parts and characters. But the rock band is off to the left of the audience, side stage, but at stage level…and they are just too loud at times and the some very important vocal content got lost for me…particularly during ensemble numbers like the opening scene.

But kudos to director Kimberly Laberge and stage manager Brianna Cullen…the motion and interaction…on movements on and off stage…are so smooth and easy that the audience doesn’t actually catch notice. And normally a good lighting director goes unnoticed because the lighting works, but I noticed Erin Dillon’s lighting on Saturday night because it really works!!!

Kith & Kin is a relatively new theater group in Milwaukee, and you can read more about them here.

Next To Normal opened this weekend and repeats next weekend November 17 – 19, 2023. Order Tickets Here!

Complete disclosures: Kimberly Laberge and Brianna Cullen are personal friends. And the photos here were stolen from Kith & Kin posts on social media but I have been told that all photos are courtesy of Adam Harrison..

Things I Know To Be True at The Interchange Theater Co-op

It isn’t very often that you get the opportunity to see a compelling contemporary play on two stages in your home town in the matter of a few years. Our first opportunity was the very challenging production performed almost exactly three years ago at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. (my response can be found here – although this was before I started An Intuitive Perspective). So when The Interchange Theater Co-op announced that they were presenting Things I Know To Be True, I was intrigued.

from The Interchange Theater Co-op website

And I am not the only one taken by the Rep’s presentation. Co-director Kimberly Laberge was as well…and she says this in her notes in the program:

When I first saw Things I Know To Be True at the Milwaukee Rep in 2019, I was awestruck by how different this felt from any other family drama I had seen. I adore the balance of elevated movement and rooted scenework, yes but it was the nuance that stayed with me.

Well, along with co-director Cory Fitzsimmons, Laberge displayed her mastery of that nuance and staged an amazing production of Things I Know To Be True. I had seen the play before. I know the characters. I know the story. Yet, this presentation completely immersed me in this family once again and I laughed at the subtle humor and I cried when things went awry. I wouldn’t have expected such a strong reaction given my previous experience with the play. And I wasn’t quite past my emotional response when I greeted Laberge in the lobby afterwards (I hope she didn’t notice). But clearly some form of katharsis that Fitzsimmons describes in his notes as a certain attribute of this play.

from the Things I Know To Be True Facebook page

And what have we here? A play about a successful middle class Midwestern American family: loving parents, two sons, two daughters. From a distance there seems nothing wrong…no dysfunction…typical nuclear family. But as we get to know them better, we realize that all six have doubts, have flaws, personal stressors, and to each their own form of dysfunction. So not quite the typical family after all but no family would have as many trials to face as this one.

Laberge and Fitzsimmons have taken all of these seemingly distinct personalities and kept them in place within the family dynamic, yet allowing each to excel at their individual monologues and stories, while guiding us through the damaged family culture as it exists. They did this with the necessary drama, tenderness, edginess, and all out family discord that the text calls for. And they added a number of silent vignettes between the dramatic scenes that help illustrate the story and relationships without unnecessary dialogue. Marvelous.

And they couldn’t have accomplished this without the perfect cast…and they have a group here who understood their characters, their place in the world, and their place in the family. And the children at least realized that their best bet to become someone: themselves, was to leave the family home…which always provided shelter when they felt troubled.

The family? Kim Emer as Fran Price (mom), William Molitor as Bob Price (dad), Chloe Attalla as Rosie Price, Mary Seigel as Pip Price, Mari Mercado as Mark Price, and Joshua Groth as Ben Price.

Kim Emer, Photo credits: Mari Mercado and Kimberly Laberge.

The key character is mom, Fran Price. And Kim Emer is outstanding in this role. Seemingly the perfect mother we soon realize that she is insecure and wants to control the family dynamic to her own ends and visions. So she often interrupts her children as they are talking to tell them how they feel or what they are doing. Late in the play, her husband Bob, asks why she is always so angry…and by that point she often is…but she’s overcome by her lack of control of the situation as each of her children are making choices that she wouldn’t have chosen for herself nor for them. Emer is dynamic in this role and never loses sight of who she is or what she wants to accomplish in life. I can’t imagine a better casting.

Chloe Attalla, Photo credits: Mari Mercado and Kimberly Laberge.

Another stand out performance comes from Chloe Attalla as the youngest daughter Rosie. After the first ensemble preamble to the heart of the play, she is the first character who defines her ‘present’ self to the audience via a monologue about her solo sojourn in Europe. She comes off as totally invested in what she is trying to accomplish but doesn’t understand how or why she came up short. And then her homecoming helps introduce us to the rest of the family. While Fran Price is something of the glue that holds the family together…although glue isn’t quite the right term…Chloe seems to be that actual vehicle that spreads love around and binds them together (despite being the butt of a rude family joke).

William Molitor, Photo credits: Mari Mercado and Kimberly Laberge.

And we mustn’t overlook Bob Price, the family patriarch who is ably played by William Molitor. Bob seems to have settled for doing what he thinks is ‘right’. Thirty years on the assembly line of a car plant that shut down and then working on his yard…mowing, raking, pruning, watering, fertilizing, and shoveling snow. Seasonal tasks the seem to define his life in retirement but he doesn’t know how to fill the time between finishing any of them and waiting for the need to repeat them. But even that doesn’t seem to make him happy. A classic example of ennui. And he seems to have ceded his place in the family to Fran and his roses. He doesn’t quite seem alive until his sons fracture his sense of moral and cultural norms.

As the lights came up and the actors were taking their final bows, I felt that this was the one performance that I’ve seen this season that had earned a standing ovation. Sadly that didn’t happen.

Side note on the play itself and not the performance: After experiencing two different performances now, I am not quite sure when this takes place. The parents seem to be of the generation of my parents or older siblings (very post WWII 20th Century) while the children feel more of the 21st Century.

This was a very short one weekend run, so by the time you read this it will be over. Sorry for that.

Besides the decidedly inspiring play that I experienced this past weekend, I am anxious to seeing future directing efforts by both Kimberly Laberge and Cory Fitzsimmons. I am expecting that they will present us with more challenging plays, well played and well directed.

and a reprise from my previous posting: When does your childhood end (and unspoken corollary: does parenthood ever end?)