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“This show breaks barriers as it addresses a prevalent issue that is clearly there but never really talked about: Social Anxiety,” says VOX ATL contributor Sydney Palmer. “Creating a title character with a mental illness opens up a lot of forums for discussion.”

Dear Evan Hansen, Thank You for Starting a Much-Needed Conversation About Mental Illness

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A Note to Readers: The following story focusing on teen social anxiety and mental health contains significant plot details from “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Dear Evan Hansen,

What an amazing show! With your beautifully belted ballads and star-studded cast, you provide an alluring experience that any Broadway fanatic is sure to enjoy. However, while watching the performance I couldn’t help but resonate with the characters and the overall message that was being expressed. I may not be an Evan Hansen, but I most certainly know what it feels like to be alone.

The show follows the anxiety-ridden teenager Evan Hansen (portrayed by the exceptionally talented Ben Levi Ross) as he enters his senior year of high school. The opening number “Does Anybody Have a Map?” showcases Evan’s mother Heidi (portrayed by the vibrant Jessica Phillips) and the hopes she has for his final year of high school. She asks her son if he has been writing the therapeutic letters assigned to him by his therapist in order to combat his social anxiety. Evan reveals that he started one and his mom stresses the importance of writing the letters to help increase his confidence. In the Murphy household, mother Cynthia (played by the passionate Christiane Noll) desperately attempts to get her eldest son Connor (portrayed by the hilarious Marrick Smith) to attend school, despite being hopelessly high on the first day of his senior year. The mothers sing about navigating parenthood as the boys head off to school.

When Evan arrives at school, he can be seen writing a letter in the computer lab that is addressed to himself. He writes about how invisible he feels and the lack of impact his disappearance would have on his peers. After he prints the assignment, Connor catches him and insists on being the first one to sign his cast. After the friendly exchange between the two boys, Connor notices the letter Evan wrote and immediately becomes infuriated saying he wrote the letter because he knew that Connor would find it. He takes the letter from Evan and hastily leaves the computer lab.

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Three days after the incident, Evan is called into the principal’s office in which he is met by Connor’s distraught parents. He learns that Connor has committed suicide and that he had his letter tucked away in his pocket when he was found. His parents assumed they were good friends and that the letter found was Connor’s suicide note that was addressed to Evan. After seeing his cast with “Connor” printed across it, the couple is convinced. Before Evan can confirm or deny anything he is invited to dinner and dragged into a web of lies that includes making up stories, writing fake emails, and ultimately creating a fundraiser to rebuild an apple orchard that the Murphy family visited frequently in the past. He insists that his lies are simply an attempt to “help” the Murphy’s but when classmates Jared (portrayed by the witty Jared Goldsmith) and Alana (portrayed by Phoebe Koyabe) suspect something different due to the benefits, dating his longtime crush Zoe (portrayed by the inspiring Maggie McKenna) and popularity, he is forced to come clean.

This show breaks barriers as it addresses a prevalent issue that is clearly there but never really talked about: Social Anxiety. Creating a title character with a mental illness opens up a lot of forums for discussion. Evan Hansen is a character that goes through things we all go through as teenagers and high school students. He has trouble fitting in, a difficult time making friends, problems talking to the girl he likes, and most importantly, feeling like an outsider.

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The performance highlights the highs and lows of adolescence. We see Evan go from a lonely kid who writes letters to himself with no friends to a high school hero dating the girl of his dreams. Through the duration of the show, Evan appears to be coping better with his anxiety but the glitz and the glamor is simply a distraction from the soul-crushing self-denial he is facing.

Technology plays a large role in this show. Not only was the stage transformed into a Facebook page, a laptop screen and many other things that captivated the crowd, the stage also presented us with the real issues social media creates. Evan can be seen on his laptop frequently throughout the show — a device that allows him to view other social groups and their fun, only increasing his social solitude. Social media gives an unrealistic expectation for what a life should look like and makes us feel unworthy regardless of who we are. After Connor’s suicide note is leaked, the Murphys receive death threats and harassment. Zoe, one of the most confident people Evan knows, is crushed by the iron fist of social media.

In this day and age, it is really important for us to put down the devices and talk about what we are feeling. Instead of hiding behind fake emails, Evan should have talked about the things going on inside of his head. Maybe if open communication had occurred, Connor would have survived to the second act. No one should have to deal with anxiety of any kind, whether it be social, specific, generalized, etc. Mental illness is an issue and no one should ever have to feel alone.

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“Dear Evan Hansen” really showed me that it is OK to not be happy all the time. My whole life I have always been ashamed when I felt overwhelmed or tired or like I didn’t fit in. I simply plastered on a smile and kept it pushing. But now I am trying to be more considerate of my mental health and take care of myself. As someone who has been in a place where my anxiety stopped me from branching out and living life, this show was honest and felt so real. Anxiety is not a joke and it’s not something that you should falsely label yourself with to appear cool or to get attention.

I am so glad that a show like this exists to begin the much-needed conversation about mental illness. Thank you, Evan Hansen, for everything you have done for me. Also a huge thanks to “Most Valuable Kids” for this amazing opportunity. The show was phenomenal and I am so grateful.

Sincerely,

Sydney Palmer, 16, attends Rockdale Magnet School

Above photo: VOX teen reviewer Sydney with her mom Lisa at the April 28, 2019 performance of “Dear Evan Hansen” at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre.

VOX teens experienced a matinee performance of “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Fox Theatre, thanks to the generosity of VOX community partners Most Valuable Kids of Greater Atlanta and Broadway in Atlanta.

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