When does a nine-year-old's somewhat wild, unfocused behavior cross the line from "typical" boyish conduct to Attention Deficit Disorder (commonly called ADD), a "syndrome" currently defined by a loose set of observed symptoms rather than by a physical test? Are the causes of ADD hereditary or environmental? And is the best course of treatment drugs or just time?
These weighty questions are posed by Lisa Loomer in her mordant comedy, Distracted, now receiving its New Jersey premiere in a superb production by Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre out at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.
If you're thinking that ADD doesn't seem to be a appropriate subject for a comedy, you're probably right. But the humor, along with the performances of a stellar cast, enhances the poignancy and relevance of the dilemma, especially for the children who suffer from the disorder and their parents. And it raises cogent questions for all of us about our current culture and our tendency to turn to a little pill to cure anything that ails us.
An Off-Broadway hit last season, Distracted tells the story of nine-year-old Jesse who, according to his teacher and a slew of specialists, suffers from ADD. To diagnose their son's odd behavior, his parents navigate the complicated world of medical and alternative treatments. As we watch them, we may reach the conclusion that our entire culture is distracted.
One of the wonderful aspects of seeing a play produced by Dreamcatcher Rep is the obvious collegiality and comfort conveyed by the actors in the company, which makes the performances convincing and natural. As the mother, a terrific Harriett Trangucci (right) narrates the play, talking to the audience in a manner that makes them an active part of the action, a confidant, if you will. Her anguish and confusion is palpable, and her comic timing superb. She never plays a line for laughs; her delivery, comic or serious, is always natural. Matching her is Scott McGowan (above left) as Jesse's father. He favors the "boys will be boys" diagnosis; he claims he was the same way when he was nine and rejects the idea of giving the boy Ritalin or any other psychotropic drug to alter his behavior. He asks, "Is childhood a disorder now?" His constantly jiggling right leg and inability to sit still (never mind watch one program on television without incessantly changing the channel) suggest that ADD might be hereditary.
Harry Patrick Christian and Noreen Farley play a variety of roles. Christian voices an off-stage Jesse; when he finally appears, he looks and acts every inch the nine year old! He also plays various doctors, each with a specific point of view and accent, scooting on and off stage on a red rolling office chair. And he steps out of his dramatic role several times to voice an actor who suffers from ADD, extending the situation beyond the footlights. Farley (right in photo to left) plays the teacher Mrs. Holly, the tearful Dr. Waller and obsessive-compulsive neighbor Vera with gusto and hilarity, but always remains in character.
The sestet is rounded out by Jessica O'Hara-Baker as the ADD neighbor/babysitter Natalie, who cuts herself, complete with a sulky demeanor and teenage walk. She's also very funny as a waitress (who probably also suffers from ADD) and a nurse at the facility in New Mexico where Jesse finally ends up. Newcomer Beth Painter (above, left) is terrific as Jesse's psychologist Dr. Zavala (also rolling around on an office chair) who finally refers the family to Dr. Waller. As the neighbor Sherry (Natalie's mother), she's an overbearing, know-it-all with a very credible New York accent, rolling her eyes at Jesse's mother's pronouncements.
That our culture may have something to do with the proliferation of ADD diagnoses is evident in the fact that the mother reads the news on her Smartphone, cellphones constantly ring and are answered or people are texting. Just watching this may make you uncomfortable as you recognize your own behavior.
Laura Ekstrand's adept directorial hand is once again in evidence, for although the first act is a bit long, the action never drags. Ekstrand and Tana Pierro's set—three red chairs on a floor painted with geometric shapes—serves multiple venues very well, with the actors rearranging the chairs and bringing on props smoothly. Lighting by Jorge Arroyo and sound by Michael Magnifico are appropriate, as are the costumes designed by Ekstrand. The latter, nothing elaborate, require a mere change of one garment to turn one character into another.
In Distracted Lisa Loomer has given us a play that tackles a relevant problem in a unique way: she melds the play's fiction with the reality of the theater until the lines are blurred so we can't tell where one ends and another begins. That's why the Associated Press called Distracted, "a smartly comic, sharply observant and surprising play." When you see it, I know you will agree. I do.
Distracted will be performed Friday and Saturday nights at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison. Dreamcatcher Rep's usual venue, the Baird Center in South Orange, is closed for repairs, so the folks at PTNJ have generously allowed Dreamcatcher to produce its Spring production at their home—and even co-producing the project. Luna Stage in West Orange generously provided rehearsal space for the production. Theater people have big hearts.
For tickets and information, call 973.378.7754, ext. 2228 or visit www.dreamcatcherrep.org .