Metea Valley High School connects musical to mental health

In a stage production this month at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, the singsongy fantasy of musical theater gives way to the dark reality of bipolar disorder, the weighty reality of high-pressure teenage life and the unavoidable reality that mental health disorders can affect anyone.

One character in the musical “Next to Normal” is experiencing bipolar disorder and a depressive episode. Another deals with anxiety wondering if she'll inherit the family disease. A third character — spoiler alert — exists only in the mind of his mother.

“There are a lot of heavy topics,” director and music educator Nathan Bramstedt said.

So he called in reinforcements.

“I didn't feel like I was qualified enough to be the only voice talking with the students or the community about mental health issues,” Bramstedt said.

Kelly Olenski, physician relations coordinator at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville, will attend performances Jan. 20, 22 and 23 of “Next to Normal” to provide a question-and-answer debriefing and mental health education “for people who are left after the show wondering what they saw,” she said.

In “Next to Normal,” audience members will see a portrayal of suburban family life marred with a mother's suffering over her first child's death more than 15 years ago. Olenski said the musical touches on themes of depression, grief, loss, suicidal thoughts and use of medications to treat psychological disorders.

It's been a challenge for the nine-member cast to handle what actress Taylor Moran calls the “emotionally exhausting and exhilarating roles” of their characters, such as hers, the mother who is battling bipolar disorder and depression years after her son's death.

The mother character is numbed by excessive medication prescribed by her first doctor, Bramstedt says. But she continues to have vivid mental fantasies or delusions of her son, whom she has molded in her mind into the perfect all-American teen. She loves her son and thinks often about him, sometimes at the expense of her living daughter, who is facing her own struggles with anxiety and the pressure to be perfect.

“It's difficult sometimes because you really have to feel all those emotions at once,” Taylor said.

Portraying the imaginary 16-year-old son also is a challenge for actor Ethan St. Germain. His character interacts only with his mother, since no one else in the story knows he's there.

“My objective is for people to believe that I am alive,” Ethan said. “It's been really weird because I'm not my own character, I'm in someone else's mind.”

Once the audience is awakened to the son's imaginary nature, Bramstedt said Ethan's character is placed further and further toward the edge of the stage, even up on the catwalk in the school's black box theater and in the audience.

“We use a cool, abstract staircase to nowhere that he climbs up and down,” Bramstedt said.

Despite its complex mental topics, Bramstedt said “Next to Normal” contains moments of humor and is relatable for teens. Each year, Bramstedt said several Metea students will seek mental health help from Linden Oaks and more will face psychological challenges without getting treatment.

“It's sadly not uncommon that students are just overcome with anxiety and stress from the pressures of high school,” he said.

Taylor and Ethan agree. The theme of feeling unable to keep up with the demands of school and life resonates, the actors said. Plus it's just eerie to experience a portrayal of the mind of someone with bipolar disorder, Ethan said.

“They truly 100 percent believe something that just isn't there,” he said. “That's the scariest part.”

Bramstedt said the cast goes all-out in portraying the characters, so he predicts there will be tears — both on stage and in the audience. Still, the story offers one positive conclusion.

“It's about facing your own reality and having a support system around you,” Bramstedt said.

A nine-member cast will put on the show at 7 p.m. Jan. 20, 22 and 23 in the black box theater at the school, 1801 N. Eola Road. Premium tickets for padded seats in the first three rows are $15 and regular seats are $10 at

• If you or a loved one are in crisis, visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-7255 or visit

  Metea Valley High School students Jason Zerafa and Bailey Cochran are among the actors in the school's production of "Next to Normal," a musical with mental health themes that will conclude with a question-and-answer session with an expert from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health. Mark Black/
  The musical "Next to Normal" at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, for which students Ariyana White and Bailey Cochran rehearse Monday, involves themes of bipolar disorder and anxiety. The school will perform the show Jan. 20, 22 and 23 in the black box theater at 1801 N. Eola Road. Mark Black/
Ethan St. Germain and Taylor Moran play two of the main roles in Metea Valley High School's production of the musical "Next to Normal," and their interactions underscore the mental health issues of the character played by Taylor. Courtesy of Laura Moran

Mental health: A growing concern

In an occasional series, the Daily Herald explores how the suburbs respond to conditions of the mind. Today, we examine why the director of a high school musical is bringing in mental health experts to debrief after the show.

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