Alice Ripley sounded subdued on the phone, still a little beat-up after a night raging through Diana Goodman's bipolar panic. Eight times a week, Ripley suits up in Diana's damaged psyche and soars through the mountains and valleys of mental illness in "Next to Normal." Ripley won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance and then last summer hit the road for a 36-week North American tour. She loves the character and the show, but it takes a toll.
"I'm like a prizefighter," she said in her husky, breathy voice. "When I'm not onstage, every action that I take has to be focused on my next performance."
Which means lots of sleep ("the great healer"), ice packs, hot baths, swimming and drinking lots of water ("I'm a strong follower of hydrotherapy").
Ripley brings "Next to Normal" to the Ordway Center in St. Paul for a two-week run that opens Tuesday. By the time the tour concludes at the end of July in Toronto, Ripley estimates she will have performed Diana 1,000 times. The prim matron whose porcelain-perfect facade cracks under everyday stress was a role she had been waiting for.
Ripley's performance starts in her pale blue eyes and radiates with such unconscious intensity that it's tempting to wonder whether her life resonates with Diana's. No, Ripley said, she was unfamiliar with the daily struggle of mental illness.
As research, she read such books on depression as William Styron's "Darkness Visible" and Andrew Solomon's "The Noonday Demon." As her experience in the role deepened, and as she has listened to audience feedback, she's come to respect how difficult it is for some people simply to be alive.
"Let's face it, it's not easy being a spirit on the physical plane," Ripley said, "and Diana represents every woman to me, in that she's a wild spirit full of joy, intelligence and a huge heart and there's no place for that to go in what she's trying to accomplish."
A Tony and a Pulitzer
"Next to Normal" garnered 11 Tony nominations in 2009, second only to "Billy Elliot: The Musical." In addition to Ripley's victory for performance, it won for best original score and best orchestration.
Even more impressive, though, "Normal" won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. There was some controversy over the selection; the piece was not among the finalists forwarded by the Pulitzer jury, but the awarding panel nonetheless made "Next to Normal" the eighth musical ever to win the award.
Ripley had her first look at Diana at workshops for Second Stage in New York in 2006. Composer Tom Kitt and writer Brian Yorkey had begun work years earlier on a loose set of songs criticizing how the medical establishment treats mental illness.
Producer David Stone and director Michael Greif encouraged the creators to shift focus to the Goodman family and the effects of bipolar illness, suicide, drug abuse and psychiatry. After opening off-Broadway, the creative team focused the story more directly on Diana. The formula worked, and "Next to Normal" opened in the 800-seat Booth Theatre on Broadway in 2009 -- with Ripley in the central role.
That a six-character musical focused on mental illness would become a smash hit and Pulitzer winner speaks to the cathartic power of "Next to Normal." Some shows are admired. This show went deeper. It was loved by audiences.
Ripley is the only Broadway cast member to go on the road with "Next to Normal." She said nothing can compare to working in Times Square, but once the lights go on and she hits the stage, she finds audiences to be the same. However, different venues present challenges. In St. Louis, for example, "Normal" played the 4,000-seat Fox Theatre -- a huge difference from the smaller size of Broadway show palaces.
"The audience is so much farther away and so much bigger that it's tempting to try to expand what I do to meet them," she said. "The stage manager will remind us to keep it small, let the audience come to you. And it's a good reminder, because you can wear yourself out."
Diana obviously is Ripley's best role to date. A Broadway veteran since 1993, she has performed in "Sunset Boulevard," "Les Miserables" and "Dreamgirls." She had lead roles in "Side Show" (Violet) and "The Rocky Horror Show" (Janet Weiss). The show consumes all her time, though she did squeak in a CD release last week in Chicago for her new acoustic album, "Daily Practice." She plays the guitar and sings. Life beyond Diana might include some screen work.
"I have secretly been waiting for my camera years and I'm hoping they're going to start now," she said. "'Next to Normal' has challenged me as an actor because of how complex Diana is. And that's got me hungry for another character like that in a non-singing role, because it would be interesting to express that same intensity in a different way."