Following in the footsteps of a career-defining performance—like, say, Alice Ripley’s in Next to Normal—can be daunting…but Stacia Fernandez is up to the challenge. While taking a leave from Mamma Mia! through January, Fernandez is playing Diana Goodman in Florida Studio Theater’s production of N2N, finding new ways to make the role her own.
The role, which follows the emotional and psychological journey of a woman (and her family) dealing with loss, grief and mental disorders (though not necessarily in that order) is a challenge for any actress. Diana must be simultaneously sympathetic and abrasive, comic and tragic, loving and vicious. And, of course, the performer has to be able to belt out some pretty spectacular notes while emoting her heart out, making this one of the rare roles that requires both an actress who can sing and a singer who can act.
Initially, Fernandez says, the idea of a woman having this amazing opportunity in a musical was enough to attract her to the role. “When I saw the show on Broadway, I was so inspired by Alice's interpretation, and this riveting story that was being told,” she recalls. “I wanted to tell it my own way.” While she calls Ripley’s performance “brilliant,” she wanted to interpret the role differently and figure out on her own how she would play the role.
While she doesn’t feel much pressure from Ripley’s performance lingering in audiences’ memories, she acknowledges that it can be “an adjustment” for people watching. “If our audience saw Alice, they might be expecting to see things done a certain way,” she says. “They have to readjust to my Diana. My interpretation.” That, she says, comes with the territory of recreating a role. “I think the audiences here at FST are embracing and making a great leap with us every night.”
In order to make her Diana her own, Fernandez thought about how she herself would be if she were bipolar and schizpressive. “I can only tell the truth if it comes from me,” she says. “And this does. I know that I had that moment in the discovery process where I started looking at everyone I would meet and think, ‘They could be walking around with this disorder.’ There are a lot people in our society with mental illness, [and] a great percentage are functioning just fine. So how would I be functioning?”
Like most people, Fernandez says that she has dealt with some loss and grief in her life. “I recently walked with a dear with friend through a terminal cancer,” she remembers. “That certainly taught me a lot about the medical profession and about how I deal with grief. It was traumatic, and I think what Diana went through was traumatic as well.”
This week (“and it does change,” she quips), Fernandez’s favorite moment in the show is the song “The Break,” in which Diana begins to connect the dots of her illness with Dr. Madden. “It's very satisfying as an actress to get to this place,” she says. “It's a relief. It's scary. It's joyful. It's terrifying. And I have to say that the whole play, as written so brilliantly by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, is an honor to live inside every night. Just singing this music and saying the words every night feels like a gift.”
Ultimately, Fernandez hopes that her audiences get some insight into bipolar manic depression from the show, and that they understand that everyone has their issues, “and that hiding from them never really heals anything.”
“This is truly an amazing experience for me,” she continues. “The fact that Mamma Mia! has let me go for these 16 weeks to do a play that means so much to me as an artist is a gift. I will be heading back there on January 21st and I so look forward to it, but I will be enjoying and diving into this play with my heart and soul for every moment that I'm here!”