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Ashby actor takes hard look at depression.

Byline: Jules Becker

Learning is essential to Christopher Chew - both as an educator and an actor. Lately the 40 year old Ashby performer - a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Northeastern - is serving as the headmaster at North Middlesex Regional High School (which serves Townsend and Pepperell as well as his home base).

As Chew recently told the Telegram, "I fell in love with Ashby (his wife, Nancy, is a native) and decided I wanted to go into teaching." Not surprisingly, he followed up a bachelor's in drama at Carnegie Mellon with a masters of arts in teaching at Fitchburg State. Still, when SpeakEasy Stage Company artistic director Paul Daigneault asked the IRNE Award-winning actor ("Man of La Mancha" with Lyric Stage Company of Boston) to play the husband of a woman with bipolar disorder in the area premiere of "Next to Normal," he consented.

As it turns out, the Pulitzer Prize musical has been as much of a learning experience for Chew as engaging students as a headmaster. In fact, he was quick to admit, BPD proved undiscovered country. "I didn't know anything about it until Paul asked me to get involved. " He was quickly taken by the musical. "He (Daigneault) sent me the script, and I fell in love with the story and the music, too." While Chew prepared to play husband Dan to Kerry Dowling's Diana, NAMI - the National Alliance on Mental Illness- "set us up with two different couples in both of whom the wife had BPD and the husband was the caregiver."

Both actors gained considerable insight from the couples. In one, a couple from Fitchburg whom they visited, Chew said, "She (the wife) had successfully been able to treat her condition with medication." Even so, he added, "There were times when she needed to be hospitalized. They had a longer process finding the right fit for treatment." By contrast, the other couple - former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and wife Kitty - "were going through maintenance after twelve years." As Chew observed "They had regulated their lives a bit more successfully." The day Chris and Kerry spoke to them, "She (Kitty) had had one of her ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) treatments that morning."

Differences notwithstanding, a key similarity that they found was the teamwork of each couple. "This is a lifetime commitment," Chew realized. "Both wives were dealing with the situation. Neither family asks "Why me?" At the same time, "The Fitchburg couple do it (the treatment, the teamwork) on a smaller, more intimate scale," where former Gov. Dukakis "speaks regularly about trying to help others." If "the other (Fitchburg) couple did talk about needing a network of support," Chew said, "the Dukakises immediately accepted ECT."

As Dan, Chew identified with the Fitchburg husband. "My character Dan," he maintained, "thinks it (ECT) might be barbaric." Speaking of an allusion in the show to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and the potential dark side of ECT, Chew was not surprised that "The majority of people get that reference." He saw that identification extending to the effect of the BPD on the couple's children. The Fitchburg couple, he said, saw the condition and the treatment presenting their kids with considerable challenges, while the Dukakises "were keeping their private issues as private as possible."

As for "Next to Normal" itself, Chew observed, "One of the things I like so much about the show is how much it personalizes BPD and how families deal with it. The show is not about mental illness but about loss and grief." Calling attention to "moments of clarity but also moments that are unresolved," Chew concluded, "I think that people have appreciated the honesty of the production."

"Next to Normal" takes honesty in musicals to a higher plateau. Focusing on the challenges of a suburban housewife with bipolar disorder, this disturbing but musically lyrical show looks for solutions but realizes that normalcy may be an impossible ideal. What makes the search for solutions convincing? Brian Yorkey's book aches with the pain of a dysfunctional functional trying to hold on to human caring, and his lyrics avoid platitudes. Tom Kitt's music may not contain conventionally hummable pieces, but the alternating angst and hope of individual family members ring true. Director Paul Daigneault charts the diverse odysseys of the musical's characters with sharp pacing and careful attention to the heart and soul of each.

Kerry Dowling is commandingly conflicted as Diana - both as she tries to find tranquility in drugs and shock treatment and discovers that taking risks without them will keep her from becoming a peaceful robot with memory loss. Dowling is heart-wrenchingly moving on such numbers as "I Miss the Mountains" and "Didn't I See This Movie. " She brings great pathos to Diana's conversations with her dead son Gabe. Chew moves just as persuasively from seeming stability to concern that he too may need some kind of therapy. He sings with strong phrasing on "Song of Forgetting." Michael Tacconi is memorable as son Gabe though not as flat out dynamic as Aaron Tveit on Broadway. Sarah Drake is a standout as troubled daughter Natalie, especially when she feels relatively "invisible" in the scheme of things.

Eric Levenson's disarming scenic design - with stylishly spare units side by side - well serves the changing fortunes of the family members.

The title "Next to Normal" may sound like an unremarkable compromise, but SpeakEasy Stage's soulful premiere shimmers with welcome light.

`Next to Normal'

Where: SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston

When: through April 22

Information: (617) 933-8600 or bostontheatrescene


CUTLINE: Christopher Chew stars in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of "Next to Normal."

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 18, 2012
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