Distracted, who is not? In case you have been trekking to the North Pole, and have not experienced this omnipresent, modern condition, Elaine McCarthy’s set design, with a backdrop of three large screens, each sporting rapidly changing TV clips (none close to complete and nothing you can focus on) will bring you right up to speed on the current pace of life before the action on stage even begins. It is Multi-Tasking 101.
Nine year old Jesse’s distraction is different. It has a label that can end up transferring him to a special education class or putting him on drugs to help him focus. The label is Attention Deficit Disorder. Or maybe worse, it could be Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the diagnosis du jour; you cannot ignore that one, or can you? Jesse’s parents, called simply Mama and Dad, are earnest folk who want the best for their child and appear to have the will and the means to obtain it. Mrs. Holly, his teacher, has taught school for 24 years and has 27 kids in her classroom. “Twenty seven of them are learning disabled when he is in class.”
Mama, Rita Wilson, is very concerned and follows up on every recommendation she receives. She has consulted the experts: Dr. Broder, Dr. Jinks, Dr. Karnes, Dr. Zavala (all cleverly played by Bronson Pinchot). Her two intrusive neighbors also give her plenty of free advice and testimonials as to the wonders the drugs have done for their children.
Dad, Ray Porter, is more of a hang-loose kind of guy. He thinks back to his own youth and sees in his son a normal boy, threatened by all this meddling. He has fewer rules that he tries to impose on Jesse. When his rules are not followed he metes out discipline unselfconsciously. Dad loves Mom, Mom loves Dad, they both love Jesse, who loves them both, but the obsessive focus on fixing Jesse threatens all these bonds. Mom is agonizing over trying to do the right thing. It has a familiar ring to a lot of parents, no? Is this a fad driven search for the gourmet child? Or are the teachers and the experts on to something? As an onlooker one can only conclude that neither is completely off the point and the system has a lot of power. Both Porter and Wilson are convincing parents, each has wonderful timing making these deliberations entertaining despite the nagging suspicion that either could be right.
Loomer knows her territory. She weaves in all the pro’s and cons of treatment. She even hits Dad’s argument that evolutionarily some of the things we call disabilities, like ADHD or dyslexia, had benefits for the species or there would not be so many among us (i.e. in the jungle the ability to scan and move quickly enabled one to catch and eat the tiger rather than be the animal’s next hamburger). Loomer manages to pack all this into a very fast paced, funny and cleverly laid out first act. Mom often addresses the audience directly explaining what she is thinking, who is telling her what, and why she is going to next expert. Other characters address the audience similarly; it is a device that works well here.
Off stage, Jesse yells his wants and objections and announces scene changes, but does not appear on stage until the very end because Mom has decided that stage exposure is not good for kids. He has perfect pitch for the various nuances of young male exuberance, demands, and mega responses carried just a little too far, a little too often. It renders the adults’ concern plausible. Even Dad’s contention that it is just boy stuff has the ring of possibility. Whenever Jesse shouts off stage one has the sense, “Haven’t I heard something like that before … in my house or wafting up from down the block?”
Mid-way through the second act Distracted starts to flag and ultimately comes to a trite conclusion. Too bad, but maybe not fatal. There is a lot to like in Distracted and a lot to think about on the way out. With a little work it could move from a humorous, yet conscientious, treatment of a difficult issue, saddled with a cloying conclusion, to a total work as meaningful as the first act leads us to want and expect.