Lisa Loomer's newest play at the Taper follows in the footsteps of her earlier work and contains many of the same elements. Like The Waiting Room, which exposed the health problems resulting from the long-standing collusion of the medical community in forcing women to change their bodies to fit male notions of female beauty, Distracted engages the medical community and its complex role in our lives—and illustrates that the solution is sometimes worse than the problem. Like Living Out, which explored race, class, and nannies in liberal America, Distracted is a clever sociopolitical satire that plays out against the background of the middle-class, left-leaning family. Sadly, Loomer's latest drama, while exploring the same terrain as the other two, contains some flaws that make it less successful. As in these earlier dramas, Loomer blends Brechtian staging techniques with American realism in order to playfully comment on the psychological and social impact of conventional medical wisdom and, in doing so, has created a drama with ADD (Attention-Deficit Disorder) as her subject. The irony is that, in attempting to indict the notion of easy solutions to living in an ADD world, Loomer has created a play that is, in and of itself, distracted and distracting.
The play tells the story of Mama (Rita Wilson, in a sympathetic and nuanced performance), Dad (Ray Porter), and their struggles with Jesse (Hudson Thames), their nine-year-old son who may have ADD. When a teacher (Stephanie Berry) tells Mama that Jesse acts up in class and suggests that they have him tested for ADD, the family is sent on a journey of visits to a variety of doctors (all played by Bronson Pinchot), alternative-medicine practitioners, and neighbors, most of whom are barely sane and are heavily medicated themselves. Jesse's babysitter, the fourteen-year-old Natalie (Emma Hunton), for example, cuts herself so that she can "feel something." When he is diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and given medication to control it, Jesse becomes a zombie and Mama is unsure she is doing the right thing. She sees in her own life all the elements of ADD, but in our society it is called "multitasking": the ability to use a cell phone and computer while watching television at the same time is considered a boon. In the end, the family decides to pursue alternative medicine and help Jesse find balance in his life.
Loomer's play, and Leonard Foglia's production of it, was as overstimulated and hyperactive as its young protagonist. Foglia presented Brechtian fourth-wall-breaking side by side with television [End Page 292] style naturalism. Actors periodically dropped character and spoke as themselves. In these moments the play demonstrated its strength: it refused to accept easy answers or to reject any one viewpoint, and it embraced the complexity of the issue. At one point, for example, Pinchot, playing a doctor who is opposed to medicating children, stepped out of character to state that Ritalin gives him the focus required to learn his lines impugning medication, and that he personally has had very positive experiences with medicine.
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The designs likewise blended the theatricality of Brecht with an impulse toward naturalism, while threatening to overwhelm the viewer with stimuli. Elaine McCarthy's set, Russell Champa's lighting, and Jon Gottlieb's sound design were certainly effective in creating the world that Loomer's script envisions. The audience entered to a wall of television monitors—channels surfing at random—showing news, sports, popular programs, and so on that were growing progressively louder and faster. The interactive set allowed the characters to move quickly and effectively through the space, shifting from the wall of televisions to the simplicity of a suburban kitchen by moving a few panels.
This overwhelming world, which can suddenly become still, comments on the lives of Mama, Dad, and Jesse, and on the medical community that insists that drugs...