"Distracted" at Caldwell Theatre: A Hectic Meditation on Modern Life
On one level, Lisa Loomer's mach-speed dramedy, Distracted, is a play about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD — an ailment barely known to exist prior to the 1990s, and which now allegedly plagues about 1/20th of all children in America. (Girls are less affected than boys, one out of ten of whom apparently suffer the malady.) How, she asks, can we expect our children to focus when multitasking adults cannot even manage the trick? Might the flood of ADHD diagnoses in the last 20 years have more to do with efficiency than health? Idiosyncratic, loud, hyper, and attention-demanding children are not efficient. They distract us from our adult concerns.
The adults in Distracted are very distracted indeed. The play begins with Mom (Laura Turnbull) sitting on the floor of her home, trying and failing to meditate. "Lord-make-me-an-instrument-of-your-peace!" she says, running together the words of St. Francis' prayer like she's waiting for someone to bid on it. Her goal each morning is to fit in as many repetitions of the prayer as she can before her son Jesse (Brian Inerfeld) wakes up and starts yelling. (Inerfeld spends most of the show offstage, acting solely with his prodigious vocal cords.) He is 9, rambunctious, uncooperative; unpopular at school with both peers and teachers. He is miserable, and he is making his mother's life miserable. Dad (Stephen G. Anthony), for his part, was miserable already. With his high-strung temperament inflamed by the tension of his home life, Dad can only add to it, stomping around and yelling. That his son might have a medical problem is a possibility he cannot, and will not, face. He will bray past Mom's every attempt to discuss the subject, perhaps forestalling the conversation until Jesse grows out of it — whatever it is.
Distracted is the story of Mom and Dad trying to do right by their kid. At first they resist the ADHD diagnosis; then they accept it and begin looking for help. They seek it from social workers, therapists, teachers, shrinks, and general practitioners. They seek it from homeopathy, chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and genuinely awful dietary regimens. They seek it from their friends and neighbors, all of whom are either getting divorces or doping their children.
As Loomer wrote it, Distracted is an ongoing argument with itself. Its characters' words and wisdom are forever fighting with the elemental realities of the world as created on the stage. Actress Lela Elam, in the first of her several roles, plays a specialist named Dr. Zavalla with a trillion-kilowatt smile. She is all care, sympathy, gushing solicitousness. But her warmth is that of a video fireplace, and her kindness could be described as "nice" rather than "good." Not that she's a bad person. She's just busy. When Mom tells her that she took Jesse to another specialist named Dr. Waller, Elam's eyes grow even brighter than usual. "I think Dr. Waller is wonderful!" she exclaims. Sighing a little, Mom says: "You recommended her."
This occurs, I think, in the second scene of the play, and if you blink you might not notice how masterfully director Clive Cholerton has framed Loomer's odd structural decisions. Consider: That scene is a flashback. In it, Mom begins telling Dr. Zavalla about her visit with Dr. Waller, and then there is yet another flashback. (Dr. Waller is played by the very intense, very funny Kim Cozort.) Flashbacks within flashbacks, done so smoothly and quickly you forget you've gone anywhere. It reminded me of Microsoft Windows. Work on a project in one window; discover you need to research something, open another window to do so; forget what you're doing and get lost in the new window's expanse; eventually open another. Ever do that? How often? Do you have ADHD?
Yet the characters never talk about the distractions and vagaries of modern life, even as those distractions and vagaries pry their lives apart. Dad romanticizes old-timey, rambunctious, lawless boyhood. (So how come he gets so frustrated with Jesse?) An overexercised, overmedicated, underinformed neighbor named Vera (the effervescent Kim Ostrenko) speaks with typical New Agey self-confidence about how to salve the hurts and confusions of modern life. (If she's so smart, why does she jog through the neighborhood with such blatantly haunted eyes? Why is she prone to sudden crying fits?) Sherry, another neighbor (Kim Cozort again), believes she can master the universe with medicine: Ritalin saved her son; she's working on her daughter with a mixture of Depacote, Risperdol, Trilectol, and who-knows-what-else; and she's taken care of herself with a gastric bypass. (If she's so in charge, why is she surreptitiously stuffing her face with donuts in the front seat of her car?) Sherry's daughter (Nikki Bromberg), who sometimes baby-sits Jesse, is a "cutter," and proud to admit it. (But she recoils at the mention of masturbation.)
Always, as this motley, sad, and funny crew plays their play, there is sound and fury from the big TV screens that hang above the stage. Scenes dissolve as the characters forget what they were on about, or else scenes begin to form simultaneously in various parts of the stage and compete for our attention. Actor Michael McKeever, playing a series of doctors and cranks while putting his wonderful physical comedy instincts through their paces, seems to break character over and over again to advocate the use of Adderall — the brand-name amphetamine pill often prescribed to those with ADHD, and which is to Ritalin approximately what cocaine is to decaf.
There's a lot to distract you in Distracted, but what my mind keeps returning to is Tim Bennett's sparse set. Although the original script puts the action in California, this production is set in South Florida — in Weston or Coral Springs, it looks like. You've seen houses like Mom's and Dad's before: some architect's stab at faking an Italian villa on the cheap. In the peaceful, ordered 'burbs where the Everglades once dominated, the primeval swamp has been covered over with genetically engineered grass, and the chaos of the city stands far away. This is the America of the modern family, a paradise of artificiality and control. For years, children were the last natural or wild things in it. Clearly, something had to be done.
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