Long Island Addresses Mental Illness on Stage

In honor of World Mental Health Day, we’re looking back at a few Long Island theatrical productions that shined a spotlight on mental illness and its impact on families, friends, and the human condition.

“Fun Home” at Smithtown Performing Arts Center

Dennis Creighton and Jacqueline Hughes in “Fun Home”

In 2018, Smithtown Performing Arts Center brought the Tony-Award-winning “Best Musical” “Fun Home” to Long Island audiences. Based on the graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, the musical explores themes of sexuality and grief with the character Alison looking back on her childhood and college years as she tries to come to terms with her father’s suicide.

Dennis Creighton gave a powerhouse performance as Alison’s father, Bruce, who copes with an undiagnosed and mostly untreated mental illness. Although the character is problematic for multiple reasons, namely his relationships with underage boys, Mr. Creighton’s performance provided the pathos to ignite empathy for a man struggling to stay afloat.

Smithtown should be applauded for producing a show that inherently targets social progression rather than pleasing the average audience. Long Island could use more theatre that ignites thought and conversation.

“Day and Age: A New Musical” at Cultural Arts Playhouse

The cast of “Day and Age” at the Cultural Arts Playhouse

This past March, the Cultural Arts Playhouse hosted the Long Island premiere of “Day and Age,” a new musical written by two young people currently involved in the Long Island theatre community. Composer Brian Sweeney said he aimed to tell a story that was relevant to twenty-somethings in today’s world. Mental illness is one of the issues that the show tackles.

“I want this to be a raw, honest look at what’s happening to people my age – depression, anxiety, social injustice, debt, addiction,” he told Long Island Arts Scene in an interview.

“But most importantly, I want it to show people that the relationships we form are what get us through the worst in life, and even when it feels like you can’t handle something, your real friends will always be there to lift you up.”

To find out what’s next for “Day and Age” and its production team, be sure to follow the musical on Facebook.

“Next to Normal” at South Shore Theatre Experience

The cast of “Next to Normal” at South Shore Theatre Experience

Just this September, South Shore Theatre Experience presented the Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal.” Although the musical has been reevaluated from a more modern perspective over the years and is debatably problematic in some instances, it cannot be denied it paved the way for a bigger discussion of mental illness in theatre.

The musical focuses on a woman, Diana, who lives with bipolar depression, and her family. While her husband, Dan, is occupied with finding ways to keep his wife and home stable, the couple’s daughter, Natalie, struggles to cope with her mother’s behavior and begins to fear for her own mental health.

As theaters continue to produce this show, the conversation around mental illness and its stigma continues – which is progress.

“Sunset Boulevard” at The John W. Engeman Theatre

Although “Sunset Boulevard” is not a show that directly aims to tackle the issues surrounding mental illness, it cannot be denied that the unforgettable Norma Desmond suffers from delusions. When Glenn Close returned to the role on Broadway, she told the press that she hoped to use her star power to address the stigma of mental illness.

From a modern lens, “Sunset Boulevard” is an exploration of how the Hollywood machine impacts its stars’ psyches. Today, we continue to see actors and industry professionals alike wrestle demons that emerge from the shadows outside the spotlight. The studio system may be dead, but the prevalence of mental illness in the arts community is not.

Tickets are on sale now for “Sunset Boulevard” at the John W. Engeman Theatre in Northport.

To learn more about World Mental Health Day, visit the World Health Organization.

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