Playwright/screenwriter Lisa Loomer's career has been diverse and engaged with involving subject matter — and includes a Pulitzer nomination. On a wider popular level, she's probably known best as the co-author of the film Girl, Interrupted, which concerns young women battling their personal demons in a mental hospital. Clearly, Loomer doesn't shy away from tough contemporary subjects — 1994's The Waiting Room deals with women who have suffered the effects of cosmetic body modification — and 2007's Distracted grapples with one of the more confounding maladies of modern life: attention deficit disorder.
These days, it's called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a broader definition that nevertheless remains controversial even as the medical establishment embraces diagnosis and treatment with ongoing assuredness. That controversy frames Distracted, and Loomer's view — through the lens of an ordinary, unsuspecting family — makes the thorniness of the topic accessible while provoking an empathetic response from the audience.
Rebekah Durham, star of a new production by Tennessee Women's Theater Project, leads yet another of that company's quality Nashville premieres. Durham plays Mama, the mother of a high-spirited 9-year-old boy, Jesse, whose behavior at school has become disruptive. With her husband, known only as Dad (played by David Chattam), Mama slips down the rabbit hole of stressful (and costly) appointments with teachers and mental health professionals.
But while Mama wants to keep all options open and will admit to the ADHD diagnosis if it leads to blessed peace, Dad is less inclined to cave in to the official lingo.
"He's just a boy!" he reacts with apparent wisdom. But his statement only supports the research: Males exhibit the condition four times more often than females.
And the couple's discussions about therapy — and the pressure they feel to take action in Jesse's case — only increase the family anxiety.
Tense bedroom question: "You want a blowjob?"
Tense bedroom answer: "No, I want a life!"
Act 2 offers a profile of Jesse's progress with medication (Ritalin, Adderall, etc.). He hates it, and the side effects only compound everyone's misery. Meanwhile, there's a subplot involving a teenager (Keri Pisapia) who babysits for Jesse. She is a "cutter" (she self-mutilates), and her issues feed the play's inquiry into the rise in certain developmental disorders.
Loomer's clear mandate to try to keep such serious matters on the light side works more often than not, though the deeper we go into the scenario the harder it is to sustain the humor. Self-conscious asides that break the fourth wall have their amusing effect, and dialogue that might veer into the preachy thankfully stays on dramatic course instead.
Besides Pisapia, there are other capable supporting players in the roles of neighbors, teachers, doctors, nurses — including Alice Raver, PattiNicole Wheeler and Music City veteran Buddy Raper (his first local role in a while).
Until he makes his appearance onstage in the play's final minute, we don't actually see Judah Todd as Jesse. But he's a strong offstage presence throughout — a youngster in distress, trapped inside his hyperactive body and further addled by the drug regimen.
Lift-off on opening night was delayed due to technical issues that were not ever resolved sufficiently, and so the show went on without the complement of a video design component aiming to reinforce the sense of an overstimulated society. But the material is strong enough to stand alone, and director Maryanna Clarke paces the action well. The actors — especially Durham, who handles the lion's share of the emoting —reward us with a thoughtful and meaningful production.
(Programming note: Distracted is an honest play with a frank approach. Besides the bedroom banter, it includes some brief exchanges involving the child Jesse's penchant for using the word "fuck." That's a head's-up for parents and guardians if they should bring younger theatergoers.)