Diana (Deb Lyons), who suffers from bipolar disorder, finds family life challenging in Next to Normal.

It's hard to like Diana, the central character in Next to Normal. Like many people with difficult illnesses, she's totally self-centered, leaving those around her to fend for themselves -- even when it comes to attempts to help her.

That Deb Lyons is able to bring a measure of empathy to her portrayal of mentally ill Diana is a notable achievement of Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of the musical drama, which opened Friday (May 4).

Directed succinctly by Rep resident director and director of education Nicole Capri, Next to Normal concerns a suburban Seattle mother and wife who suffers from bipolar disorder, which not only takes away her once freewheeling spirit but threatens to break down the already fragile structure of her family.

Especially affected is her confused, angry and suffering husband Dan (Jonathan Rayson), who bears the brunt of his wife's disorienting and often cruel behavior. 

Although the production has been described as a rock opera, don't expect to see Tommy. The many songs in Next to Normal may employ ringing guitar riffs, but their function is to define the positions and situations of the play's six characters. To that end, the performers must concentrate on clear delivery of lyrics rather than on flaunting their musical chops. 

There's one brief scene, though, with psychiatrist Dr. Madden (Peter James Zielinski) that is truly electric -- you'll know it when you see it.

Issues of grief, suicide, drug abuse and ethics are involved, along with surprising plot twists, abrupt mood changes and snaps of unexpected humor that keep audience members on their toes -- all enacted on Mike Nichols' contemporary and functional multi-level set. 

The production, which contains adult language and adult content, continues through May 27. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. For tickets call (501) 378-0405 or click here.