Adam Heller, Barbara Walsh, Nicholas Belton, and Erin Leigh Peck in Normal
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Adam Heller, Barbara Walsh, Nicholas Belton, and Erin Leigh Peck in Normal
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Barbara Walsh has made a sparkling career out of playing mothers, from the emotionally conflicted Trina in Falsettos to the grieving Mrs. Baskin in Big to the scheming Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray. Now, she's taken on another maternal role in the Transport Group's world premiere production of Normal, and her uncompromising and extremely committed performance is the one thing that works in this otherwise highly problematic musical.

Walsh's onstage alter-egos have had more than their fair share of challenges but none are in the league of Gayla Freeman, whose teenage daughter Polly (Erin Leigh Peck) is literally wasting away from anorexia. Meanwhile, Gayla's trying to maintain a job, a "normal" family life, and what's left of her own sanity, all of which is no mean feat. As she rails against doctors and her husband and children, attempts to communicate with her bird-brained mother, and fantasizes about running away to Nicaragua with her shrink, Walsh is never less than believable and often heartbreaking.

If Gayla's actions and emotions seem authentic, it's no accident; author Yvonne Adrian lived through this harrowing experience. Unfortunately, she and her collaborators -- composer Tom Kochan and lyricist Cheryl Stern -- have chosen to tell the story in the form of a "concept" musical with numerous flights of fancy and too many unnecessary side characters (well played by Shannon Polly, Toni DiBuono, and Nancy Johnston). If Adrian, Kochan, and Stern had had the chance to see the similarly troubled In My Life first, perhaps they would have realized the error of their ways.

Just as that other show might have been more successful had it zeroed in on the relationship between its young lovers, Normal would have benefited from a more realistic portrayal of the battle between mother and daughter for control of Polly's body -- which is what anorexia is all about. While the creators' decision to focus on Gayla's struggles is a reasonable choice, we still want an explanation of why the seemingly well-adjusted Polly has chosen to starve herself. That explanation arrives much too late in the show's beautiful, third-to-last number "Write This," which finally gives Peck a chance to flesh out her underwritten character.

Also, Normal might have worked better if the male characters had remained out of sight. Adam Heller can't make Gayla's remarkably ineffectual spouse, Robert, anything but maddening -- his one solo, "Father Fantastic," does little to paint to him in a positive light -- and Nicholas Belton sometimes seems oddly immature as Polly's older brother, Zachary.

Adrian, Kochan, and Stern, all members of Transport Group, are lucky to have found a theater company willing to present such a difficult piece, but Normal has been given a bare-bones production. (Just imagine the possibilities if the company had even one-tenth of In My Life's budget to play with!) Director Jack Cummings III's people-come, people-go, people-move-stools staging on John Story's all-white set is simply inadequate. That everyone involed in Normal was willing to take on such difficult subject matter for a musical is to be admired, but only Barbara Walsh manages to do it justice.