Sunday, March 20, 2011

New play delves into medication dilemma for ADHD

From The NY Times review:

Mama tries to meditate every morning. But her cellphone is always ringing. And before you know it, her young son, Jesse, is awake — and Jesse demands a lot of attention.

Although he is mostly heard rather than seen, Jesse is the focus of and the reason for Lisa Loomer’s “Distracted,” now having its New Jersey premiere. This is a Dreamcatcher Repertory Theater production, being staged at Playwrights Theater in Madison because Dreamcatcher’s home, the Baird Center in South Orange, is closed for repairs.

This is a deceptively basic staging. The set, by Laura Ekstrand and Tana Pierro, is little more than a curtain and a few red chairs. The lighting, by Jorge Arroyo, is unexceptional. But Ms. Loomer’s characters — 15 of them, played by six actors, smartly directed by Ms. Ekstrand — are rich with attitude, humor and personal history.

Mama (Harriett Trangucci, pictured) and Dad (Scott McGowan) have a decision to make. Little Jesse shows every sign of having A.D.D. (also known as A.D.H.D., or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). And they are being strongly urged to solve this problem by putting Jesse on drugs, specifically Ritalin. Everybody’s doing it.

To medicate or not to medicate may seem like a pedestrian dilemma on which to build a play, but Ms. Loomer’s script is as thoughtful as it is funny. It is also theatrically irreverent, occasionally having actors break character for comic effect. At one point, Harry Patrick Christian, playing a doctor who disapproves of drugs for children with A.D.D., interrupts himself to announce that he can’t read these lines anymore because he, personally, wouldn’t be able to function as an actor if he were not on Ritalin. (One presumes this is not actually Mr. Christian’s story but part of the script.)

The cast does a stellar job of creating a confusing world in which Mama and Dad are pulled in what feels like a dozen different directions. Noreen Farley is particularly terrific as a doctor constantly on the verge of breaking down (she’s going through a bad divorce), a teacher who believes that having taught for 22 years makes her infallible and a neighbor with a fake Vuitton bag who conducts all her conversations two inches from the other person’s face.

Jessica O’Hara-Baker plays a troubled teenage baby sitter and a sympathetic nurse, but her finest moments are as a waitress who can’t seem to find her way offstage. Beth Painter’s characters include a pro-Ritalin neighbor and Mama’s overly organized therapist. Mr. Christian’s other characters include a hugging homeopath and Jesse himself (mostly as a high-pitched, childish voice from behind the curtain).

If “Distracted” fails in originality anywhere, it is in the inevitable comparison of A.D.D. symptoms to normal childhood behavior. Dad is given the job of observing that distractibility, a short attention span, impulsivity, risk-taking and blaming others for your mistakes pretty much define childhood, not a medical syndrome. Or do they?

The play’s greatest strength is its refusal to make the answer to that question simple. Maybe there is something to the dietary approach, Mama and Dad decide, when they are advised to take Jesse off wheat, dairy and sugar. Or maybe the environment is the cause, they conclude, when warned about mold, pollen, pesticides, food dyes and the ingredients in vaccines. Maybe they should give behavior modification a try. Maybe they should fly to a clinic in New Mexico.

Yet, Ms. Loomer’s script finds its way to a thoroughly satisfying, life-affirming, as-happy-as-possible ending. If “Distracted” is a disease-of-the-week play, it is at least a very entertaining one.