My name is Nicky McDonnell and I will be playing Diana in MCPs production of Next to Normal. I have a BFA in acting from Emerson College in Boston and have been performing for many years in The Washington Metro Area, New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston. In 2003 after my first son was born I opted to move into another career and enjoy doing theatre as much as time permits. I keep my eyes open for roles that speak to me and Diana definitely is one of those roles.
Why did you want to play the role of Diana?
I try to pick roles that are already a part of me in some way. I grew up in a home where two of my immediate family members had depression/bipolar and it’s something that’s part of my blood stream. I don’t have to reach very far to understand it. It’s a part of me. Coupled with many of my very painful memories are days of elation and manic excitement. Diana is a beautifully written character and I hope to do her justice based on my own experiences. I prefer art when it has something to teach us. The work that I really go after are the pieces that take us further into our humanity, into our compassion for one another. I like a good tap number as much as the next person but if I can touch my own spirit deeper and connect with the audience in a more substantial way…that’s when theatre comes to life for me personally.
How do you relate to Diana?
I relate to Diana in almost every way. My life completely changed when I started my family. I love them and hold them close and can’t imagine a day without them. My greatest fear in life would be the loss of either of my children. I feel I could survive most things but that one thing is something I’m not sure I could endure. Diana holds up a light to that fear. It’s difficult work but meaningful and even healing in some ways. In the face of her bipolar (that was likely brought on by the traumatic event of the loss of her son) I admire her tenacity to survive the unimaginable.
What were some of the challenges you had learning the role?
I would say the biggest challenge in playing Diana is singing her and staying in control of the emotion. The score of this musical is one of a kind. It is an epoch two book score with difficult rhythms, harmonies, styles. It is chock-full of heartbreak and also has a wicked subtle sense of humor. Finding all of that and being able to sing the score at the same time is really quite a climb.
What it is like working with Lisa Bailey, your director?
I love working with Lisa because she truly is an actor’s director. She is open to the organic evolution of the piece. So many directors are stagers and they get a fixed idea in their mind. So much is missed when this happens. Lisa is smart and sensitive to this and is willing to fix what’s broken, revise or rework etc. She is refreshingly honest and insightful and has the personal depth and history to take this show where it needs to go emotionally without creating a maudlin display. She is great to work with!
What has your MCP experience been?
My experience thus far with MCP has been terrific and I think the Alden Theatre is a fantastic space for this particular show. It’s just intimate enough for the story and big enough for the score and the sound that will be coming from the stage. I love what Lisa and the production team have decided about the set. So little is needed to tell this story as far as set design and props. We have a nice, clean minimal design going with well-defined simple areas. There is quite a bit of stage time that is split but I think our set makes it easy to read and understand.
What makes this production unique from other N2N productions that you have seen?
What I really like about our production is that Lisa and David went after the heart of the show when they put the cast together. Every single actor makes sense in their role. It’s an honest cast of characters…age appropriate, character appropriate, and each one of us has a good solid connection with the role. It already feels like a family. There is trust already established between us all and that is a real gift. On a show with this much emotional excavation it’s a requirement in order for it to succeed.
Did you see the NYC show or any other production, and what your reaction was to that experience?
I did not see N2N on Broadway but I’ve watched it on You Tube. It’s phenomenal. Many people had mixed feelings about Alice Ripley. I thought it was a beautiful performance. What impresses me most though, at the end of the day, is Kitt and Yorkey. The writing is over the moon. It’s so good that even at the moments when I feel I’m lost with what they were trying to convey – I have to trust that what is there is there for a reason. My job is to find it, go with it and make it right.
Set up your songs in the show and what we learn about her when the songs are sung.
Diana sings almost constantly in this show. The vocals are tough but very exciting. It starts with Just Another Day which gives us a little background on the family and Diana and then the score moves on to tell us a little more bit by bit. We learn about her medications, we learn about her memories, we learn about her relationship with Dan and Natalie, we are heartbroken when she finally sings How Could I Ever Forget? with Dan….finally remembering that her young son died. Each song is a journey of its own through the road trip of their lives. Diana ultimately ends up leaving Dan and Natalie. We don’t know if she is leaving for good or merely taking a much needed respite from a broken world.
The show culminates with the song Light. I personally love this song almost more than any other in the show. It’s not a warm and fuzzy happy ending. The lyrics are powerful…. “ When we open up our lives, sons and daughters, husbands, wives, and fight that fight. There will be light.” We have to fight for light in our lives. It’s not a negative statement…it’s just a fact. It’s so honest and not shrouded by any Hallmark clichés. And I do believe that is what life is about….fight the fight whatever that is for you.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing your performance as Diana?
I’ve had a few great opportunities in my life. This is one of them. It’s an honor to play her and I truly hope that what the audience walks away with is hope. As a cast we really don’t want to convey a dark, depressing show about mental illness. That’s not what this is. It’s a show about family, surmounting struggles, falling and getting up, mania, boredom, brilliance, grief, loss and ultimately love and how love still wins out over all. That’s what I hope to convey to the audience.
What are you doing next on the stage?
….As far as what’s next for me as an actress I really don’t know! I’ve got my eye on 33 Variations at LTA – but we shall see!
Next to Normal plays February 1-16, 2013, at The McLean Community Players at The Alden Theatre -1234 Ingleside Avenue, in McLean, VA. For tickets, purchase them online. Tickets may be also be purchased at the Box Office, by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111, or calling the Alden Theatre box office at (703) 790-9223. Box Office hours are: Wed & Thur: 5-9 pm Fri & Sat: noon-9 pm.
Part One of ‘Putting Normal Together’ at McLean Community Players’ by Lisa Anne Bailey.
Part Two of ‘Putting Normal Together’: Meet the Cast at McLean Community Players: Brent Stone by Joel Markowitz