Review: 'Dear Evan Hansen' stirs conversation in the Twin Cities community

Review: 'Dear Evan Hansen' stirs conversation in the Twin Cities community Photo: courtesy of Dale Stark/ Hennepin Theatre Trust

June 05, 2019 08:45 AM

Sarina Long writes reviews of performances in the Twin Cities.

Members of the Twin Cities community gathered Tuesday night for Voicing the Unspoken Struggle: A Community Conversation stirred by topics in the Tony-Award winning "Dear Evan Hansen."


KSTP's Ken Barlow was the moderator for the discussion on mental health. He started off by sharing his own journey after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"Don't be ashamed like I was," Barlow said. "I found out my father had been diagnosed and kept it a secret, so I thought that's what you did. After going through the five stages of grief, I hope I can help others by sharing my story."   

Barlow introduced members of the panel: Sue Abderholden, MPH, executive director of National Alliance of Mental Illness Minnesota who Barlow joked was "The Bulldog of Mental Illness," Peyton Counts, program assistant at Indigenous Peoples Task Force; Aric Jensen PHD, LP, director of mental health at Fraser; and Christiane Noll who plays Connor's mother in "Dear Evan Hansen."

This was the first time Hennepin Theatre has hosted an open discussion in conjunction with a touring show.

"Tonight is evidence that the arts matter. It is our opportunity to talk about topics like this that effect so many families," said Mark Nerenhausen, the president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust.  

The purpose of the conversation was not to tell people what to do but more so that there are resources available for those seeking answers or guidance – or simply a path to begin to follow.

The first topic discussed was social media and how messages impact the lives of children as well as adults. Key points were made by many panel members:

"In the past, when you were bullied and went home, it was respite," Abderholden said. "With social media it's 24 hours of constant access to comparing yourself to others, seeing perfect pictures and staying up too late."

"In Act 1 social media brings us together but in Act 2 it tears you down," Noll said. "The design of our set gives you the feeling we are submerged by our phones, computers, TVs. The moral of 'Dear Evan Hansen' is to put down your devices and go sit by a tree."

"Everyone knows everyone's business on the reservation," Counts said. "It's almost like Instagram."

A question arose from the audience if anyone had advice for how much time parents should allow their children to be on social media.

"It's important to set boundaries and have conversations about what they are seeing and hearing on social media but we have to model by putting our phones down too," Abderholden said. The crowd applauded.

The second topic was cultural communities how different communities of culture deal with some of these issues and how those affected seek help. Counts spoke openly about the Native American communities and how historical trauma is in their DNA. Suicide is high in places like Alaska and South Dakota. Poverty, drugs, alcohol are common issues and access is not readily available.

"On the reservation people in your community take care of you<' Counts said. "Grandma is not only mine but she also plays the role of Grandma to other people in the community too."

The final topic was support: How can loved ones begin the dialogue and the road to support for kids/teens who are questioning who they are and if they fit in? How do themes and issues in "Dear Evan Hansen" motivate families to discuss these challenges? How do you start the conversation?

"The best places to have these important conversations is in the car," Abderholden said.

"It's important to talk about it. Maybe write it down then process emotions," Counts said. "Be gentle, open, and willing to listen. Use words like 'I've noticed…' versus 'Why are you being so crabby?'"

"We underestimate what our kids can handle," Noll said. "They're ready to discuss big topics sooner than we think. My 10-year-old daughter was exposed to my role in 'Next to Normal' and now 'Dear Evan Hansen,' both with powerful mental health and substance abuse themes. I try to be open with conversation about tough topics."

"Discuss it clinically but simple," Jensen said.

"There is discomfort for families when someone dies via suicide," Abderholden said. "Shows like 13 Reasons Why send a bad message. Recovery is possible so if you're worried about a friend, don't keep a secret."

"Dear Evan Hansen" runs through Sunday, June 9 at The Orpheum.

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Sarina Long

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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