Mama’s other friend Vera (Jenni Ryan) has obsessive-compulsive disorder which is treated with antidepressants and Xanax. Her son is also medicated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (referred to here are both ADD and ADHD) with Zoloft for dessert. This is Mama’s reality, and the world inhabited by her own symptomatic 9-year-old son, Jesse. She’s a mom on a mission, as so many seem to be these days, but she’s finding it tough going.
Lisa Loomer’s Distracted is a comedy about modern society’s attitude toward children who don’t conform to expected behaviors. Instead of parents and teachers accommodating each child’s own personality, it is important to make both home and school run more smoothly by identifying their “disorders” and “fixing” them. “Dad” (John Reidy) takes the position that Jesse is just being a boy, and in fact, is better than some who torture animals, while his teacher, Mrs. Holly, (Melissa Harris) says he must be treated or moved to special ed. because she has “27 other students” to manage—which becomes both her mantra and her excuse. (And it is understandable. Overcrowded classrooms take a hit here.)
We meet Mama as she is trying to get in a morning meditation session. She uses the prayer of St. Francis (“Lord make me an instrument of your peace,” emphasis mine), rushing through the words. She begins talking directly to the audience and we are part of the scene throughout the play, a presentational style that works at first, but eventually seems strained. There are a lot of funny lines and bits in the first act, but laughing at some of the “jokes” in Act II feels uncomfortable. Mama is, of course, unable to finish her “quiet time,” as Jesse interrupts her (he is a voice off-stage through most of the play) and her husband bustles through the kitchen on his way to work. Unlike in conventional plays, all food and drink is imaginary: It’s discussed, but it never exists.
Mama shuffles back and forth between parent-teacher conferences, meetings with a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and another psychologist. All have “issues” of their own. The one excellent point that is made among all the babble is that drug companies have enticed doctors into broadening the definition of symptoms which can indicate ADD. Thus, more diagnoses will be made and more drugs will be sold. Big Pharma is not our friend. These parents to not want to “drug” their son until one doctor compares putting a child with ADD on Ritalin to giving insulin to a diabetic. This does make sense, but it isn’t so cut-and-dried when Jesse finally goes on medication.
The sense of an intrusive, electronic world is enhanced by projections around the stage that change from scene to scene or even moment to moment. Director Justin Been also designed the clever set. Tyler Duenow’s lights add atmosphere and their changes aren’t subtle, which I assume is intentional. I don’t know where Gary Bell dug up some of the costumes (they have “busy” patterns) on the professional women, but they are definitely distracting. Been also designed the sound, incorporating rap and emo rock which set us up for sensory overload.
Mama also succumbs to all kinds of distractions from ordering lots of shoes from Zappo’s to losing track of her credit card spending to trying to cope with her one interior-design client (she now works from home). She spends “date night” with her husband when they are served by a waitress (Colleen Backer) who is so engrossed in the game on TV that she has no idea what they ordered and never even looks at them. They are joined by Mama’s friend, Dr. Broder, (Adam Thenhaus) a homeopath they had consulted early on, who lists all the environmental factors (pretty much everything) that could be causing Jesse’s problems. He also is an inveterate hugger. At home later, date night fizzles with constant interruptions from Jesse.
That this world is crazy-making is no surprise; that Distracted isn’t a better play is. These stories are torn right out of today’s headlines, but Loomer handles her satire with a heavy hand. The acting is fine (many of the actors play multiple parts, making for some of the funniest bits), the direction (Justin Been) very good, considering that the show itself plays like it takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the ADD brain. I laughed some; many in the audience laughed a lot.
Generally, Loomer’s switches back and forth between humor and pathos are awkward. For example: Dad has a breakdown at one point that deserves attention from his wife and us, and he gets it, but then we’re back to the funny stuff too soon. Natalie tries to get Mama, apparently the girl’s longtime confidante, to listen to at a crisis point, but Mama is juggling phone calls and puts her off. This, of course, turns out to be a mistake. And after a couple of hours of this, I found the ending simplistic, at best.
This is an excellent production of a play that I don’t think deserves all the work that went into it, but to be fair, the rest of the audience seemed to have a wonderful time.
Distracted is at Stray Dog Theatre through Feb. 19. You may call 314-85-1995 or visit www.straydogtheatre.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT