Reality on stage

She met him at work in 1988 when they were both direct care staffers at Sierra Regional Center, a state facility for those with developmental disabilities. He went home that day and told his roommate he’d just met his future wife. They were married nearly 28 years, a family with three children, when he died suddenly and unexpectedly last February, at age 50.

Tom and Kelly Cooper Brundige were compassionate soulmates who contributed greatly to our community through their professional work and their personal passion for theater and music. At the time of his death, Tom was working for the Nevada Welfare Division, heading up a project to disperse workers to community sites such as jails, courts and food pantries to assist people in gaining access to welfare services and Medicaid. He was a problem-solver, a doer, a breath of fresh air in a bureaucracy not known for innovation.

It might come as a surprise to professional colleagues to learn that Tom was very political in his private life as a bleeding-heart Democrat who cared deeply about others. He was unafraid to engage in debate with those of opposite views, an example to many progressives who struggle to understand and communicate with conservatives.

Over the last year, Tom and Kelly devoted a lot of time to a special Artown project, the production of a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a woman with bipolar disorder, Next to Normal. It’s easy to understand what attracted Tom to this particular play, given his empathy for people with mental illness and their family members. Tom was involved in the planning stages of Nevada’s first Mental Health Court, arguing successfully that the court should accept people with mental retardation and other cognitive disabilities as well as those with a severe mental illness. He was not someone who had to raise his voice to be an effective advocate. He presented his case clearly and persuasively and people were reluctant to ever tell him “no.”

Next to Normal, a rock musical, is a local production of Bruka Theatre. The lead is Tom’s sister-in-law, Cori Lynne Cooper, an optometrist in her day job. The play is directed by his brother-in-law, John Frederick, and the musical director is Cami Thompson, an acclaimed local singer and musician. Artistic director Mary Bennett went to high school and college with Tom. Kelly is the assistant director. These connections aren’t unusual in the world of community theater, where family is broadly defined and support is endemic.

The musical tells the story of a mother struggling with bipolar disorder and the resulting chaos within her family. The play uses music to explore themes of suicide, drug abuse, modern psychiatric drugs, grief and loss, as well as hope and happiness. It is especially powerful in realistically portraying the impact a severe mental illness has on a family system. Next to Normal is an Artown showcase, and performances are scheduled throughout the month of July, including several matinees. Tickets can be ordered in advance at

When Tom first saw the play, he told Kelly it was almost “too real” in its representation of families living with a mental illness. Although the musical explores difficult themes, there are moments of lightheartedness and comedy, just like real life. Tom identified with the dad in the play and the issue of medication non-compliance, which touched so many families he worked with over the years, and he thought these very families were people who should see it.

Bruka Theatre and the cast of Next to Normal have given these families the opportunity to observe their last rehearsal before the play opens tomorrow evening as a tribute to Tom. His spirit is surely smiling somewhere, watching his vision become reality.