Leaving Normal: Alice Ripley

Photo: Walter McBride/Retna

Is Broadway ready for a rock musical about bipolar disorder? If so, it will be largely thanks to the efforts of Alice Ripley (Sunset Boulevard, Side Show, The Rocky Horror Show), who stars in the aptly named Next to Normal as a suburban mom with a difference. (She broadcasts her sex life to her kids when she isn’t contemplating suicide, getting shock therapy, or making a dozen sandwiches on the kitchen floor). Ripley spoke with Boris Kachka.

How does one play “bipolar”?
It’s definitely in me, not that I suffer from this disorder, but it’s in my family lineage. There’s probably a 50-50 chance that it’s going to be true in any family, but it happens to be true in my case. There were eleven kids, and we all shared a bathroom. It was enough to drive us all insane.

How do your siblings feel about this performance?
My oldest brother took my face in his hands after a Second Stage show and broke out in tears. This is my levelheaded lawyer brother. That piqued my interest.

What’s the hardest part about being Diana—the highs or the lows?
The hardest part is living her. Offstage, I’m experiencing certain fluctuations that are very Diana. It’s interesting to get out of a truck at a red light and start yelling at someone who’s beeping at you. It’s a little dramatic, to say the least.

What do you do to temper the road rage?
I clean out the kitchen and cook something delicious, or pick up my paints and my guitar. These are the ways I keep from banging my head against the wall.

What is it like to be playing a mom for the first time?
There’s something in Diana that denies that she is a mother. At my age [46], a lot of women have children, and I don’t. So we connect there. Diana and I are both daughters of the so-called sexual revolution that females started. I’m not sure that it really changed anything.

Your voice has a smoky, Chrissie Hynde–ish sound. Theater critics have called it “unconventional.”
I hear that a lot. Chrissie Hynde’s from Ohio, and so am I. If there’s a Cleveland sound, that’s what it is. Not Cleveland soul, but, you know, the other part of town.

You used to live in L.A., yet no movie or TV credits.
So far, my camera years are ahead of me—“she said with a laugh.” When you’re 20 and you’re in acting school and your teachers tell you that 95 percent of actors are unemployed for twenty years, you think it doesn’t apply to you. But it does take twenty years to become real, because that’s what you have to do to be an interesting actor. There is always that kid who’s a genius. You hate that kid. Like [17-year-old co-star Jennifer Damiano]—I hate her because she’s so beautiful and relaxed on stage. It takes a lot to pull that off.

Is that your bikini-covered behind on the top of your band Ripley’s MySpace page?
Yeah, it’s one of this series of self-portraits. The older I get, the more I want to cover up, but I like the colors in that Ripley butt. That’s why I picked it. Not my butt—don’t say I picked my butt!

Next to Normal
Booth Theatre

Leaving Normal: Alice Ripley