Theater review: Strong TWTP Cast Keeps Us Focused on ‘Distracted’

Distracted 9I took my daily 100 mg dose of Strattera just before writing this review; my daughter’s on one Concerta pill a day. I disclose this because I’m quite biased on the subject of attention deficit disorder (or more precisely in our cases attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and the search for treatments explored in Lisa Loomer’s play Distracted.

Tennessee Women’s Theater Project likes to tackle stories that deal with modern social issues, and the results have included several successful theatrical efforts. This production is another success because Maryanna Clarke’s excellent cast has no trouble keeping its focus throughout the sometimes comedic, sometimes poignant storyline created by Loomer.

Distracted 5Now, I could rehash the “drugs can help us with this” versus “there’s no way anyone in my family is taking a drug for this” arguments in this review, but that would be a waste of time and effort when they’re already part of the play. Mama (Rebekah Durham) feels nothing should be dismissed when it comes to helping her nine-year-old son Jesse (Judah Todd, mostly heard but not seen), whose daily struggles are making nervous wrecks of them both. Dad (David Chattam) thinks Jesse is just exhibiting the traits of childhood and should essentially tough it out like he did – he doesn’t want his son taking a drug like Ritalin, which he considers no different than speed bought illicitly on the street. Can they reach an understanding that helps everyone move forward?

This may read like a rather dry (and draining) two-act, but there’s a great deal of humor along the way as Mama encounters the absurd red tape/conflicting advice obstacles placed in her way (and ours) when dealing with a situation involving the well-being of children and adults. The way the show starts is funny in the “I know how that feels” way – Mama finds she can’t even finish morning mediation with the Prayer of St. Francis because not only Jesse but the outside world keeps interrupting.

Distracted 4The cast is wonderful in several roles that serve to pull the parents in a multitude of directions. Buddy Raper plays a host of comically intense professionals who offer everything from feel-good alternatives to the hard stuff; PattiNicole Wheeler presents everything from a doctor going through a bad divorce and definitely distracted restaurant server to a teacher whose 22 years of experience give her a false sense of infallibility and a symphathetic nurse. Alice Raver’s Vera is an obsessive-compulsive neighbor who carries a large bag which seems to provide the kind of essential security Linus from the Peanuts gang gets from his blue blanket; Keri Pisapia has intriguing double-duty as “you’ll find the right drug combination someday” mother Sherry and her troubled-teen daughter Natalie.

Oh yes, the play reminds us, there are no easy answers – though the life-affirming basically-happy ending may seem pat to some. But the top-flight cast keeps us from focusing on the more predictable elements in the play; instead we’re entertained while being encouraged to think about, and discuss what we’ve seen and heard, after the lights go up.

Distracted 6Sounds and projections designed by Chris Clarke were planned to accompany Tory Adcock’s precise lighting, Kyla Lowder’s contemporary costumes and Brittany Carlton’s pleasant and colorful set design, but at Friday’s and Sunday’s shows (I attended Sunday) those sounds and projections weren’t available for technical reasons. Based on past experiences I think Clarke’s elements would have been interesting additions but they’re obviously not necessary, particularly when the actors are so good. Despite my own battle with ADHD, I wasn’t distracted from Distracted for a moment thanks to them.

Tennessee Women’s Theater Project’s production of Lisa Loomer’s Distracted runs through March 10 at the Z. Alexander Looby Theater, 2301 Rosa L. Parks Blvd. Note: This play contains mature subject matter and language that is not suitable for all audiences. For performance times, tickets and more information please call (615) 681-7220 or visit www.twtp.org.

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Distracted 10*Photos by Maryanna Clarke courtesy Tennessee Women’s Theater Project.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).