Underground Railway Theater’s current offering of Lisa Loomer’s 2007 comedy “Distracted” is a virtually flawless production of a far from flawless uni-polar (that is, manic) play. Central to the story is the journey of one mother (Stacy Fischer) from denial to despair, with several disturbing detours, as she grapples with a common problem faced by contemporary parents. Her nine year old son Jesse (Brandon Barbosa, at the opening night performance) may have ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, or as it is more widely known, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; the operative word here is “Hyperactivity”, a state shared by young Jesse and by the play itself.
We don’t get to see Jesse for most of the play, for, as Mama puts it in the first of many fourth-wall-breaking addresses to the audience, “I don’t think the stage is a particularly healthy place for a child; besides, people only want to see a child on stage if he’s singing show tunes”. We do, however, hear a great deal from him, as his frequent tirades threaten to destroy any hope of peace and quiet for his family, his school and his neighborhood. Before the evening is over, we’ll also hear from a number of mostly well-meaning friends and professionals, every last one of them burdened with her or his own personal baggage and consequent “solutions”. But just as there is no objective way of arriving at a diagnosis (rather, a subjective analysis of a checklist of indicators), there is no real cure, merely various treatments, ranging from the benign to the bizarre, from behavior modification to medication, that only address the symptoms.
Along the way, there is, incidentally, no pretense at maintaining that fourth wall; there’s really no wall at all. This theatrical device is nothing new, as demonstrated elsewhere this season in such works as “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “M”, but Loomer carries it to its illogical extreme. At one point, one doctor hopes Jesse “someday might be able to get a PhD and help others, or play a person with a PhD who helps others”; the same actor laments that without his own Ritalin he wouldn’t be able to memorize his lines. At another point, Dad (Nael Nacer) asks if anyone is listening, to which Mama responds, indicating the audience, “They are”, but Dad insists we’re all absorbed with our own problems. Meanwhile he asks “can’t a boy be a boy anymore?”, while Mama’s question is “would Ritalin get him a friend to sit with at lunch?…would Ritalin be a better mother than I am?”
In the end, Loomer has written a wildly hysterical (in both senses of the term) skewering of the medical world’s panoply of so-called experts, while providing some memorable opportunities for actors to engage us, and, under Wesley Savick‘s fine direction, this cast really delivers. Fischer has by far the meatiest role, and she’s great in it, as is Nacer (markedly different from his roles this season in “Kite Runner” and “Lungs”, a truly versatile performer). The supporting cast, every one of them side-splittingly funny, includes neighbors like Sherry (Kerry A. Dowling), her daughter Natalie (Katie Elinoff), and Vera (April Pressel), and various clinicians including Dr. Zavala (Debra Wise),
Drs. Broder, Jinx, and Karnes (Steven Barkhimer), and Dr. Waller and others (Michelle Dowd). The technical credits are outstanding, from the Scenic Design by Sara Brown to the Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley to the Sound Design by David Remedios. Special note should be made of the Lighting Design and Projections by Bozkurt Karasu, which are often, uh, distracting. (But, as Jesse might put it, doh, isn’t that the point?). The sole negative element in this production is the performing space, between two opposite seating areas, with the same problems theater-in-the-round has, here exacerbated since there is considerable direct engagement with the audience.
When all is said and done, we the audience, even with our limited attention spans, are treated to a blisteringly comical ride full of wit and insight. Less of a coherent play than a series of vignettes that are, in both the theatrical and medical senses, at best anecdotal, this work is nonetheless a wise and wacky mirror of our overly medicated age. If there’s closure in this work, it’s probably the awareness that what kids (and, by extension, all of us) need is attention.