Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks! —West Side Story
Over the last half century or so, the family that self-medicates has become a trope of American literature. Hell—it’s become a trope of America, and our theater’s been the source of some of its most potent expressions, from the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (whiskey and morphine) to the Westons of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County (whiskey and you name it).
But Lisa Loomer pushes the conceit to the next level. Heretofore, playwrights have mostly stuck to the classic pattern—mom’s a junkie, dad’s a drunk, and the kids do whatever troubling thing they do in self-defense. With Distracted, Loomer (who also helped turn Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted into a screenplay) seems to effect a paradigm shift: in her formulation, mom and dad look pretty healthy. Dad—that’s the only name he’s got—needs his Giordano’s deep-dish fix every so often and loves his flat screen a little too much, but he goes to work every day and comes home every night, and the only alcohol we see him consume is a beer or glass of red to go with his pasta. A stay-at-home mom doing a little interior design work on the side, Mama practices her own version of meditation, sitting in a pseudo-lotus position and reciting Saint Francis’s prayer, which starts “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” They dress presentably, they look fit.
It’s their kid who’s in trouble. Nine-year-old Jesse climbs the walls, enlivens his caustic conversation with four-letter words, and can’t concentrate for ten minutes straight at school. Dad insists he’s just a real boy in a world of standardized wimps, but soon enough he and Mama are looking at a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Mama does what any good citizen of Oprah Nation would do: she networks the problem, accessing—and apparently memorizing—the insane amount of online information on ADHD (my search turned up 13,100,000 hits), consulting an array of experts, and exchanging lore with her two neighbors, hardened veterans of the psych wars for whom ADHD was just an early skirmish. Determined to avoid drugging Jesse with Ritalin or its amphetamine cousin Adderall, Mama and Dad bounce Jesse around from homeopathic remedies to New Mexico allergen clinics. But all roads lead to Dr. Jinks, the local psychiatrist who seems to have a pamphlet for every pharmaceutical. The parents cave, put Jesse on Ritalin—plus a host of other pills to modify the effects of the first—and a whole new can of worms is opened. Now the clean parents have to get their son off drugs.
Only the parents aren’t that clean after all. Loomer’s narrative, it turns out, doesn’t invert the dope trope so much as nudge it into a new context. Her ultimate point is that Mama and Dad have aggravated Jesse’s disorder by giving him a deficit of attention. A little strangely since ADHD is thought to be an organic condition, she suggests that he’s the mess he is because they’re so distracted by their work, their experts, their electronic environment, even their earnest effort to google a solution to the ADHD conundrum. Don’t be fooled: Mama and Dad are addicts, just like the Tyrones and the Westons.
You won’t be fooled, though, because all this is telegraphed aeons before the final scene. Distracted doesn’t keep storytelling secrets because it isn’t really a drama. Especially as directed by PJ Paparelli for the American Theater Company, it’s more like the cleverest PowerPoint presentation ever. Andre LaSalle’s set is hung with no fewer than 16 flat screens, which start out blasting video at us—movie trailers, commercials, hockey games—and are later used to convey statistics or establish locale (image of glasses = restaurant). And Loomer offers some amusing gimmicks: she keeps Jesse offstage and has him yell out the scene numbers, for instance, to demonstrate that he’s at once absent and exercising way too much control.
The acting, too, is far better than what you’d expect from a lecture. Donna Jay Fulks endears herself as Mama, Hanna Dworkin is appropriately off-putting as a neighbor lady who’s equal parts angst and denial, and Audrey Morgan projects it’s-a-burden-to-be-so-right authority as a nurse, a psychologist, and a teacher. Best of all is Alan Wilder, doing his cartoonish impressions of various quacks, including Dr. Jinks. American Theater Company will be missing a bet if it doesn’t start booking this show into medical association meetings.