Mama (Dana Cordelia Morgan) is willing to try anything to help Jesse (CJ Aaronson) better fit in and succeed in his third-grade class, where he's been singled out as a trouble-maker. If his disruptive behavior doesn't change soon, the teacher threatens, she'll have him moved to a special education class, despite the fact that testing has shown that he has no learning disabilities.
"My entire class is learning disabled when he's there," the fed-up educator retorts. Though many of his woes are school-centered, including a lack of peer friendships, he has issues at home, too, with difficulties getting ready, making choices and exploding in anger.
Mama, an interior designer who recently decided to cut back on work hours to spend more time caring for Jesse, dutifully does her research. She takes him to pediatricians, homeopaths, psychologists, neurologists and psychiatrists, buying every parenting book she can and considering the well-meaning advice of friends and neighbors. Jesse is subjected to biofeedback machines, a gluten/dairy/preservative/dye/allergen-free diet, behavioral reward charts and more.
Dad (Jeff Clarke) believes that the problem lies not with his son, who reminds him of himself as a child, but an educational system that rewards docile children who will sit still, shut up and become test-taking automatons. He is especially wary of the drugs — Ritalin, Adderall and other medications — that are commonly prescribed for ADHD, which Jesse is eventually diagnosed with.
Everyone, it seems, has a different opinion on what's best. The family's physician (John Stephen King) is also a believer in alternative medicine and points out that the scope of what can be considered ADHD symptoms has been widened in recent years, which has led to more and more drug prescriptions given out to children. Who pays for the lavish conferences at which the medical community decides what constitutes ADHD? Why, the drug companies, of course. On the other hand, the medication has worked wonders for many, and is recommended by numerous professionals.
And who is to blame for Jesse's condition? Pondering a potential hereditary link, Mama and Dad argue over which side of the family is responsible. As the play unfolds, we being to notice "symptoms" everywhere. Dad is constantly fidgeting, staring at his phone, flipping TV channels and displaying irritability. Mama is perpetually worrying, unable to focus on her one remaining freelance client or achieve her morning meditation goals, her mind wandering. Their neighbors are all heavily medicated, it seems: Xanax, Prozac, Zoloft and more. And the very set itself, adorned with projections by Gary Landis (who also directs) bombards us from the get-go with blaring screens offering over-stimulating sounds and sights, giving us a sense of how Jesse may feel.
Parents, especially those of a similar privileged background to the family in "Distracted," will empathize with Mama's obsessive desire to do right by her child, whether or not they've experienced these particular challenges. And thought the topic is a serious one, Loomer has created a clever and funny show and Los Altos Stage Company does a fantastic job of presenting it. The year is young, but "Distracted" is certainly a likely contender for my list of best-of-2018 picks when the time comes.
With the excellent Morgan (and the adorable Aaronson, mostly heard via voiceover) at the story's heart, and Clarke bringing just enough vulnerability to frustrated, blustery Dad, the rest of the nine-person cast gets to take the many quirky character roles, such as kooky neighbor/frenemy Vera (Caitie Clancey), whose signature conversation ender — "OK, bye" — varies wildly in tone depending on the context. Judith Miller portrays a doctor distracted by her own personal issues, the cranky teacher and a nurse at an alternative treatment center. Leslie Ivy plays Mama's therapist, a waitress who pays little attention to her customers, and a mother who claims her daughter developed autism after receiving her MMR vaccine. Vanessa Alvarez is a single mother whose own kids, including Annika Diekgers as teen Natalie, have many troubles of their own. The hilarious King, probably the show's MVP, plays a total of three different doctors, plus a version of himself as an Adderall-taking actor playing those doctors.
Yes, it's a play that frequently breaks the fourth wall, with Mama often addressing the audience directly, as well as imagining aloud what the other characters are thinking, and all the actors breaking character as they question their stage directions, begrudgingly move scenery and change props. They, too, become easily distracted by the information and stimulus overload of modern life.
"Distracted" could run the risk of misrepresenting the struggles of children and families grappling with ADHD, but to my (non-expert) eyes it offers a heartfelt, thoughtful and humorous representation. By keeping Jesse offstage until the play's conclusion, it helps reinforce the fact that while it's ostensibly his issues at the center of the play, he himself, as a genuine, real individual, has actually been minimized until the end. The play doesn't offer a definitive solution for its family but it does make the important reminder that radical acceptance, purposeful connection — and, yes, attention — are essential for all healthy relationships. No, it's not a magical cure, but it sure is an important start.
Where: Bus Barn Theatre, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.
When: Through May 6; Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.
Cost: $20 student/$38 general.
Info: Go to losaltosstage.org.
This story contains 1005 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.