Distracted, a play about ADHD, will keep your attention

A mother (Aditi Kapil) is caught in the middle of competing advice from doctors and psychologists (Katy McEwan and Warren Bowles)
Ann Marsden

At their best, Viennese raconteur Sigmund Freud's case studies read today like bristling cognitive dramas, with seeping tides of realization delivered via pinpoint associations and dizzying insights into the nuts and bolts of thought itself. Though these writings were ostensibly attempts to describe disorder, in truth they give the opposite impression: that the mind works in its own logical fashion, that all can be understood given the right set of tools.

Not so in Lisa Loomer's Distracted, in its regional premiere at Mixed Blood. It's a play about a specific issue—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—but it is also rooted very specifically in our times, when it feels as though the world could crash and burn unnoticed amid chirruping ring tones, video derangement, and the insistent demands of our voice mail.

The action begins in the morning in a family kitchen, with Mama (Aditi Kapil) alternately delivering frazzled asides to the audience and sparring with her son Jesse (Nathan Barlow, offstage for nearly all of the night but frequently making his presence felt through screams of varying urgency and irritation) to get him dressed for school. Jesse, all of nine, is high-spirited, as well as combative, uncooperative, and frequently a pain in the ass.

From the onset, this spiffy production (directed by Jack Reuler) throws a lot of stimuli at its audience. Paul Moehring's video design, projected on several screens, frequently pulls one's attention to one side or the other, and Paul Epton's lights and Katharine Horowitz's sound design mesh nicely and convey the oscillating levels of Loomer's script (there are asides aplenty, signaled by light and sound, as well as moments when the actors break character; one senses this play would be entirely incoherent if not delivered so ably).

It also doesn't hurt that Reuler's cast delivers sharp and well-defined performances. Jesse's apartness becomes unavoidable when his teacher (Karen Malina White) can no longer abide his disruptions (and later ups the ante by trying to place him in special ed). At this point, the action splits into two tracks: Mama's search for help for Jesse after he's diagnosed with ADHD, and the rocky course she navigates with Papa (Thomas W. Jones II).

Jones and Kapil convey the heavy, boxed-in despair of their characters with both the give-and-take of a solid couple and as two individuals turning increasingly desperate. Dad wants to let Jesse be Jesse, an approach that becomes increasingly untenable once the system steps in. Mama earns her husband's frequent judgment and scorn by pursuing every solution she can find, from homeopathy to pharmaceuticals, with Kapil lending a painful note of self-doubt throughout.

White, Katy McEwan, and Warren C. Bowles are called on to play a variety of roles, including various doctors and shrinks. White and McEwan also tackle roles as nosy neighbors who espouse the wonders of the pharmacy (though they have varying degrees of success in their own medicated lifestyles). None of these portrayals is meant to go more than skin deep, though Nicole Rodenburg brings a chilling distance to Natalie, a neighborhood teenager who goes down her own mental-health rabbit hole.

Tidy conclusions are elusive here, but a sweet scene at the end suggests that, sometimes at least, Jesse can indeed be Jesse (at his best, ebullient, goofy, endearing), and that his parents can find at least brief stretches of unconditional joy. But it's a moment that can break up in an instant, with the next minor explosion, the next rift, the next aggrieved phone call from school.

Reactions to Distracted will be tinged by whether or not one has experience with ADHD, but it's a drama that stands on its own merits and finds a real heart amid its scattershot elements. There's nothing here as exultantly connective as Dr. Freud's insights, but the life of the mind may well be a different game these days. Back then in Vienna, after all, a text message involved pen, paper, and the feet of a courier. 

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