UPDATE: Counterpoint by Gregory Alonzo added below.
Are today’s children over-medicated? Is A.D.D. an epidemic that requires pharmaceutical remedies, or are kids simply being kids? Has there been a decline in parenting responsibility, or are the pharmas largely to blame for propagating a pill-popping culture?
These are just some of the questions explored in Distracted an equally entertaining and thought-provoking play that premiered over the weekend at City Lights Theater in San Jose.
“The problem is all the symptoms of ADD are symptoms of childhood.”
One thing I learned: apparently even behavioral disorders look better in HD. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is now known as the more politically correct term Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ATHD. Regardless of nomenclature, it’s a serious issue that impacts children, parents, and classrooms. Oddly, ADHD is diagnosed two to four times more frequently in boys than in girls, perhaps suggesting bias.
The play is written by Lisa Loomer who co-wrote the screenplay for Girl, Interrupted. By providing multiple perspectives, she wisely avoids jack-hammering a single point of view. Still, there is a clear position here that is revealed at the end. Some may disagree with the conclusion and its rather sudden happy rap dance, but it’s the conversation that it provokes I suspect that matters most. Various pamphlets and brochures in the lobby urge us to continue our own research into the matter (“Psychiatric Drugs create violence & suicide,” “The Hoax of Learning and Behavior Disorders”). This is another reason why theater continues to matter in this day and age; it can examine a serious issue, yet still entertain. Indeed, there are a lot of laughs in Distracted.
Is Ritalin the answer, or the problem?
Jesse (Kameron DeHart) is a feisty, f-bomb dropping 9-year-old who’s having problems fitting in at school, and, worse still, seems to lack any ability to stay focused. His Dad (K. Michael Riley) believes boys will be boys and recalls his days of youth when he too was a rapscallion. But, hey, he turned out fine! “Mama” (Karen DeHart) dives headlong into research mode, vowing to find a way to help their boy. She surfs the web, meets with doctors, teachers and psychotherapists and eventually comes home with prescription drugs. Slowly, the issue drives a wedge between Mama and her husband. Jesse is dulled and becomes somewhat zombie-like.
How interesting that the play opens with a hyper-mention (on one of three projection screens hanging behind the set) of Twitter? It made me wonder if it’s our children we should be most concerned about. It seems that technology is abetting a society that is becoming increasingly superficial, and lacking in critical analysis. Maybe “excellent is the new good”?
Lisa Mallete does wonders with the direction. This play could’ve easily been too much of a lecture, or overly righteous in its stance against medication of children. Instead, thanks to some clever devices, the laughs keep the mood from getting too serious — breaking the fourth wall occasionally exposes us to the fact that these actors themselves might even have problems memorizing their lines and staying on point.
Once again CLTC impresses. The acting, for a community theater, is top-notch. Karen DeHart is the every Mom, likable and on a mission. She ably anchors the production – one moment trying to achieve a zen-like state during yoga while the world goes crazy around her, and the next fighting traffic while talking to her husband on a cell phone on the way to yet another meeting with a medical expert. K. Michael Riley is equally strong as the Dad. My one nit is that his character is drawn in somewhat stereotypical fashion. He’s initially supportive of his wife, but he’s really mostly interested in sports and eating pizza. “He’s just a boy!” Later, he aims his sights at the educational system, “Why don’t they teach them something worth paying attention to?!”
The set, performances and material reminded me of City’s production of The First Day of School. Granted that was a pure romp, but they demonstrate this theater’s continual ability to stage very satisfying and successful productions that question societal norms and reflect the challenges of life in everyday America.
City Lights Theater Company
4 out of 5 stars
Written by Lisa Loomer
Directed by Lisa Mallette
Starring Karen DeHart, K. Micahel Riley, Kameron DeHart, Steve Gold, Rachel Davidman, Kristin Brownstone, Jennifer Jane Parsons, Mary Lou Torre, Kate McGrath
May 19 – June 19, 2011
They say the origin of comedy is pain. And perhaps the worst agony one can experience is being the parent to a profoundly unhappy child. It stands to reason, then, that one would expect Lisa Loomer’s Distracted, a timely examination of a boy’s affliction with “attention deficit disorder,” would be nothing less than hilarious. Indeed, it is quite amusing. But her sitcom approach to the topic, while never failing to entertain, manages to elicit no more than an occasional guffaw and a random chuckle or two.
That’s not to say that the playwright doesn’t go to great lengths to grab one’s interest. While exploring the ethical dilemma of medicating children with powerful psychotropic drugs, she humorously depicts virtually every fanciful cause and treatment imaginable. She even resorts to having the actors break character and the fourth wall, albeit without ever really going all the way through. And she bombards us with a spectacular multi-media display of information overload, often highlighting suspected A.D.D. sufferers throughout history, from Vincent Van Gogh to George W. Bush.
And for the most part the stylistic devices are effective and mirror the central theme of the play. Of course, credit for pulling it all off must be given to the assured directorial hand of Lisa Mallette (City Lights’ artistic director) and flawless execution by a set of talented designers including Anthony Catchatoorian (Video), Ron Gasparinetti (Scenic), Michael Palumbo (Lighting) and the one and only George Psarras (Sound).
Perhaps the basic flaw of the piece lies not with the quality of the material, but its sheer quantity. Most of the supporting cast members play multiple roles, each in their own way hapless victims of similar mental ailments. Quite frankly, despite the skill and alacrity of all concerned, the many characterizations become redundant. The use of no less than five doctors to make its point comes perilously close to overkill!
“Mama” desperately seeks an answer to her 9-year-old’s malady, and her character is both the central participant and quasi-narrator. Undaunted by the prodigious volume of dialogue, Karen DeHart deftly wears both hats without ever missing a beat. It’s an impressive display of acting technique and comic timing, but inhabiting each part has an unintended consequence. Try as she might, she remains conspicuously detached from the emotional content of most of her scenes.
“Dad,” as played by K. Michael Riley, is the irascible, less than exemplary father whose refusal to accept his son’s condition is rooted not only in denial but a sincere belief that his behavior is not abnormal for a kid. Riley is convincing and evinces an affable gruffness that’s not as easy to achieve as he makes it look.
A marvelous assortment of eccentric therapists, teachers and mothers fill out the remainder of the troupe, portrayed with outlandish zeal by Rachel Davidman, Kristin Brownstone, Steve Gold and Jennifer Jane Parsons. Honorable mention goes to Kate McGrath’s (Natalie) nuanced, spot-on depiction of a teenaged babysitter with serious problems of her own; and Mary Lou Torre (Vera), whose very funny and quirky turn is a case study in maternal neurosis!
And special recognition must go to Kameron Dehart as young Jesse, whose brief appearance onstage steals the show and provides a much needed dose of genuine humanity and optimism. Bravo!
This is a worthy penultimate production of the season for one of the finest companies in the South Bay. Don’t miss it!