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Dear Evan Hansen on Mental Illness

Finn Hogan, Contributor

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Smash hit, Dear Evan Hansen, has taken Broadway by storm for the past year, portraying a group of people struggling through substance abuse, loss, and mental illness. Written by Benj Pasek, Steven Levenson, and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen made its way to Broadway last fall after running off Broadway since March 26th.

The musical itself follows high school senior, Evan Hansen (played by Ben Platt), an individual who has a severe anxiety disorder that restricts his life. The plot follows Evan and his therapist’s assignment, to write letters of encouragement to himself  through the prompt, “Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a good day and here’s why…”.   The show follows Evan and his mother, Connor’s family, and Evan’s “friends” as they deal with the conflicts that touch their lives. 

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see the show with most of the original cast, other than Evan’s mother Heidi.

Ben Platt does, in my opinion, a wonderful job portraying the struggles and mannerisms of someone living with a severe anxiety disorder. Common symptoms of anxiety disorders may include: irritability, apprehension or dread, shaking or trembling, sweating, and other symptoms.

Just by watching Ben Platt’s performance once, I saw a multitude of these symptoms being displayed, such as irritability and apprehension. Evan would display irritability throughout the show when talking to his mother. He uses short sentences with her and seems to try and have as little contact with her as possible. In terms of apprehension, we see this primarily when Connor Murphy, played by Mike Faist, takes Evan’s letter for his therapist. 

Platt does a wonderful job portraying Evan’s struggles and anxiety through not just his dialogue, but through his body language. When overwhelmed, Evan’s lips tremble, his hands shake, and he wipes them on his shirt. On top of that, he blinks rapidly and squeeze his eyes shut tightly for a few moments before opening them. It’s heartbreaking to see as this young man gets pulled into unfortunate circumstance, how much he doesn’t want to end up like Connor.

Speaking of Connor Murphy, it was incredible how the show managed to keep him incorporated. Connor Murphy is a senior in high school with a drug problem and anger issues.  As the show goes on, we learn that Connor’s mother was pushing for Connor to go to therapy and even sent him to rehab, while his father thought the best way to help him was to let him be. Despite his death being confirmed about 20 minutes or so into the first act (soon after Waving Through a Window is sung), the show keeps Connor on stage by having him represent Evan’s mind and anxiety, perhaps even his selfishness. It allows the audience to really see the impact of Evan’s lies on his psyche and shows the mental turmoil he goes through during the show.

Part of the appeal of the show is that no one truly knows who Connor Murphy was. We know he was an older brother and a son. He was an outcast in his senior year of high school. He had a drug problem, along with possible anger issues. With that all pushes aside, who was Connor Murphy? No one seems to really know, not even his family. Connor wasn’t close with his parents, and he would often threaten his sister when he got high, which damaged their relationship. We only see Connor calm and alive right before he finds the letter that Evan mentioned Zoe in. He apologizes for pushing Evan to the ground earlier in the day, and offers to sign his cast (“Now we can both pretend we have friends”). After his death, we only see Connor through how Evan has created him in his head. Personally, I think not knowing Connor adds a necessary aspect to the show. Sitting in the audience and watching as Connor’s family clung to Evan’s lies, desperately wanting to know their son and brother a bit better, or listening as students who didn’t talk Connor try and figure out who he was or keep his memory alive, I felt like one of them. I felt like one of Connor’s classmates, figuring out what happened piece by piece, who this boy was who used to sit behind me in English class or who I worked on a project with in freshman year. I felt desperate to know this kid, despite knowing full well that it was too late to know who he really was. I could only learn about who other people saw him as.

Dear Evan Hansen is a heart wrenching musical that shows loss, family, and love through the eyes of a mentally ill high school senior. With a wide range of characters and moving pieces of music, teens and adults alike all across the world have sung praise for the show. It was eye opening to see an extreme situation from different angles. From my own experience, the show is definitely worth seeing and I recommend it to anyone who even remotely has an interest in theater.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Dear Evan Hansen on Mental Illness”

  1. Emily Solomon on December 4th, 2017 10:25 am

    Great article! I love deh and I think you did a really good job of explaining what it does for people with mental illness. If I hadn’t already listened to deh I would definitely be interested after reading this.

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