The challenge of living with bipolar disorder is explored in the play "Next to Normal," which opened this week at the Empire Arts Center.

The play, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a contemporary rock musical that takes an unflinching look at a suburban family coping with crisis and the unpredictability of a mother's worsening bipolar disorder.

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The musical, presented by the Empire Theatre Company, also touches on issues of grief, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and the underbelly of suburban life.

"Next to Normal" has been called one of the best musicals of the 21st Century because of its brutally honest exploration of dark, complex subject matter and its powerful contemporary rock score by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt.

An actress from Grand Forks, Allison Mickelson, who's now based in New York City, stars in the leading role as Diana Goodman.

Mickelson attended UND before heading off to launch a successful acting career, said Mackenzie Teepen, director of operations for the Empire Arts Center.

Mickelson is a member of the Actors' Equity Association, a union of professional actors and stage managers.

"We were able to snag her between jobs and are thrilled to share such a talent with our community," said Teepen.

Mickelson is joined by Darin Kerr, who plays her husband, Dan Goodman. Kerr, who has performed extensively in regional productions, is a familiar face among theatre-goers here.

Other regional and national actors in the show are Nathan Haltiwanger, Casey Hennessy, Lauren Sanner and Randall Taylor.

The creative team for this production includes: Chris Berg, director; Abigail Plumley, stage manager; Tyler Smith, sound technician; and Maddie Sharp, music director 

A special 'talkback' session set for 9:45 p.m. Feb. 15 is free. Attendees need not attend the play to participate. Discussion will be led Tami Carmichael, UND English faculty member, who will interview Mickelson and Kerr, and moderate audience questions.

The ETC production is supported in part by a grant from the North Dakota Council on the Arts, which receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The company is also supported by a grant from the City of Grand Forks through the Community Foundation of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Region.

"Next to Normal" is the third show of the ETC's seventh season. The next show, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," opens April 17.

If you go

What: 'Next to Normal,' a Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical

Where: Empire Arts Center, 415 DeMers Ave.

When: Friday, Saturday and Feb. 12-16

Tickets: $24 for adults, $20 for students and military. Purchase tickets between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays by calling (701) 780-5500 or anytime at Rush tickets available, $5 each, cash only, one hour before curtain; all members of your party must be present to purchase.