Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Worried but Hopeful Mother: Why? Did someone get better?
Psychiatrist (as before, and a bit stunned): ... What?
The truth of Lisa Loomer's dark comedy is, of course, that no one gets betterat least not through the modern conveniences of drugs, and every kind of therapy. It's kind of like living in a Stalinist cancer ward, but with Good Housekeeping and Oprah Winfrey for that colorful dash of capitalism. In fact, just about everybody in Distracted is giving drugs and psychometrics a whirl, and never really being rehabilitated at all. Somehow, though, it's pretty funny in spite of it all.
Of course, the running gag in the play is that all the adults are driven to distraction by the glittering toys of the modern world like TV, the Internet, cell phones and on and on. And those characters with children find their offspring are doing increasingly bizarre things (though, sadly, all-too-real things) to get their parents' attention. Michelle Hand and John Reidy are the worried parents at the center of the storybecause their son (they're told) may have Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (or something more severe). So they very reluctantly enter the brave new world of pharmaceutical and behavioral research, in hopes of giving their son a future.
Ironically, their rebellious offspring (Garrett Ramshaw) has little hope of having much of a present, or of being understood at all, for he practically never even appears on stageeven though he's always being talked about. Coincidentally, the night I saw it, young Mr. Ramshaw almost didn't make it at all: the family car the young actor was relying on suffered a flat tire before the show, meaning Artistic Director Gary Bell had to read his lines from off-right for the first several scenes. Of course, the playwright's decision to keep the main character off-stage also throws the "burden of proof" onto everyone else, which must certainly be the whole point. But in many ways, the boy (Jesse) seems no worse than any other nine year old: being the class clown, ignoring instructions, zooming out into traffic on his bicycle, and so on. In fact, if I were forty-three years younger, I'm sure I'd be medicated today, too. God knows my mother was, in 1968, if Valium counts.
That's not to say there aren't truly troubled children in this world, and truly worthwhile therapies, either. But the nagging suspicion for this particular mom and dad is that "Big Pharma" (a phrase that's never actually uttered in the script) and every other person in some kind of authority has declared a quiet coup against the antics of youth. And, though it's never actually spoken aloud, it seems that the adults may have their own expectations set too high: for their children; and for their own carefree, adult happiness, putting them in opposition to any childish "acting out." Meanwhile, neighborhood parents tremble as they discuss the PSATs or preparations for a bar mitzvah, seemingly unaware of the pressure they're putting on their kids to succeed.
But these adults have a love/hate relationship with the pharmacopeia they rely on: Thimerosal (the preservative formerly added to children's vaccines), Ritalin, homeopathy, and a hundred other things, come up for concern. And, in spite of the familiar terrain, the cast members somehow make everything fresh and enveloping. Adam Thenhaus is full of surprises playing the classic "alternative medicine" expert, forcing a warm embrace on the mom (Ms. Hand) after every blizzard of warnings and every bottle of sugar pills. Colleen Backer is funny and alarming as the spaced-out child psychiatrist, and Melissa Harris is great as the just-this-side-of-overbearing schoolteacher. No one emerges unscathed in this portrayal of modern families. I was going to complain, slightly, of John Reidy as the dad for using too many very familiar comedic mannerisms in act one. But he's so wonderful in his breakdown in act two, and afterward, that I am instead filled with admiration. I could easily name a dozen much more famous actors who've relied even more on their own comic or dramatic style for years and years, and who've never shown the slightest hint of the breakthrough that Mr. Reidy achieves in that second act. So, don't wander off during intermission.
Katie Puglisi and Jenni Ryan are excellent as the other moms on the street: Ms. Puglisi seems to stagger under the weight of her own worry, while Ms. Ryan's own perfect hair and dress belie an all too firm a grasp of ... well, of everything. And Berklea Going is sweet and lovely and horrifying, all at the same time, as the young teenaged babysitter, shooting off like a meteor through her own troubled universe. Director Justin Been helps guide them all to uniformly first-rate performances.
But let's also think about the nature of the "play within the play" here, for a moment. I don't mean something like The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet, or the country-house mystery within The Real Inspector Hound, though. I don't even mean the main substance of Distracted itself, framed by the many (distracted) asides to the audience, which become a startling device in themselves. No, in Distracted, the best kind of play within a play is simply the inner, secret dialog it provokes in the viewer, as we try to understand the real identity of the problem before us, and the very real plight of its victims, beyond what is said and done on the stage.
Honestly, I don't think I've ever said this before, but "don't miss this show."
Through February 19, 2011, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave, a couple of blocks east of Grand, in the Tower Grove East neighborhood, between Sidney and Shenandoah (Tennessee is a one-way street on that block, going north). Parking is adjacent to the church/theater. For more information call (314) 865-1995 or visit them online at www.straydogtheatre.org.
Photo by John C. Lamb