While preparing to play Diana Goodman in Next to Normal, Patty Breckenridge started drawing from her "little bank," as she calls it. That's where she keeps all of her observations, feelings and memories.
"This is such a tough role, because it's life," Breckenridge says. "People I know, people you know are dealing with this."
The "this" is mental illness.
Next to Normal, which opens Friday at Uptown Players, is about a woman suffering from bipolar disorder, triggered in part by a trauma. The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is also about the effect that the tragedy and her response to it have on her family.
Actors are frequently called upon to play things like desperate, in love, dumb, smart, ruthless or victorious, but bipolar? How do you begin to play that? For Breckenridge, it started with memories of a close friend who became unrecognizable as she tried to tame the demons in her head.
"She was in LA for a while and came back and I saw a zombie version. That was when they were trying to get the meds right. Seeing her and seeing the struggle…" After staring blankly into space for a minute, Breckenridge continues, "There have been so many times I've thought about her in this process, about sitting on my back patio with my friend."
Breckinridge says she wants her performance to "do justice" for her friend and all of the other people she has met who live with mental illness. "This woman, Diana. Her life…she deserves to be portrayed the right way."
Getting there has required Breckenridge to have a lot of trust in her fellow actors, in particular the man playing her husband, Gary Floyd.
"Gary and I have been husband and wife or love interests in a lot of different shows. We actually both got our theater break, I guess you'd say, together," she says, referring to Uptown's 2006 production of Aida, in which she and Floyd played opposite each other. "We know how to blend our voices, and then there's that trust aspect."
Breckenridge and Floyd are embarking on a new break in a way. Uptown Players is the first regional theater to produce Next to Normal, which had nearly two-year Broadway run and a brief national tour. It closed on Broadway in January 2011, and it's rare for a local theater to get rights for a Pulitzer-winner so quickly.
"I'm lucky, very lucky" Breckenridge. "This show—it's the show of a life for me. It's the role of a life for me. "
"It's like this show was written for Patty," adds the show's director, Michael Serrecchia, "even where it sits in the [vocal] register. She's perfect for it."
Serrecchia says rehearsals for Next to Normal would not have been possible unless there was complete trust between everyone involved. "You go to some personal places."
At the same time, it needs to be "theatrically cathartic, not personally cathartic," he says.
Breckenridge had her own experiences with that pretty early on. "I guess it was the third sing-through and I got so touched by a song sung by my daughter and her boyfriend," she says. "I mean, I had heard the song so many times before, but it was just something about how they did it….Those are the little breakdowns you have to go through before you get out there."
Along with making sure her personal responses to the material don't take over, Breckenridge and Serrecchia have been focusing on her gestures and stripping out what they both jokingly call "Patty-isms."
"I want to be as true and real as possible, and I don't want to go over the top," she says with her arms waving. "You know, drama!" She has been working to pull the reins back because she and Serrecchia agree that this show is made far more powerful by a softer kind of honesty and "bringing it down to the basic truth."
"What families have to do take care of each other and love each other and get through just another day," Serrecchia says, is a universal struggle, along with getting "over all of the stumbling blocks in life. The loss, the disappointments, the need, the desires—that's part of everyone's life, bipolar or not."
Another recent event has given Breckenridge more insight into the role: becoming a parent. She has a three-and-a-half month old boy.
"I think if I did this role while not being a parent, I could have tried to act that," she says, "but it's absolutely true that when you have a child, it's a love that you cannot describe. This show is so much about love and family. That's another one of those deposits that I have pulled out time and time again."
But it was the experience of someone else that has helped her most through this journey. A member of the show's production team has a friend who is bipolar, and has gone through all of the treatments, including electroshock therapy. This woman spoke to the cast about her experiences.
"We were in a little circle with all of our chairs and we were able to ask her questions," says Breckenridge. "She very bravely opened up her diary and read it to us: 'Empty…hollow…dark…why?' "
"When I'm backstage, I think of those words and I see her face."