'Distracted' is a roller-coaster comedy

It's very, very funny.

And then it brings you up short, because it is so personal, so painful.

And then, you're laughing again.

That is the roller coaster ride provided by "Distracted" by Lisa Loomer, OSF's newest offering for this season, playing in the New Theatre through October.

"Distracted" is about a family's search""actually Mama's search (Robynn Rodriguez)""for a solution to their son's behavior problems.Nine-year-old Jesse (James Edson, who is offstage but a vocal presence through most of the play) is bright, highly creative, energetic, intuitive and amusing. He is also fearful, anxious, easily bored, a continual crisis-producer and a smart-ass. His exasperated teacher, Mrs. Holly (Gwendolyn Mulamba) has told Mama that she thinks Jesse should be tested and treated for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

While Mama searches, Dad (U. Jonathan Toppo) stubbornly denies. Jesse is just a normal kid. He's a boy.

Now, Mama's full-time job is to find out what is really the matter with Jesse and how to "fix" it. Full-time, that is, as she maneuvers through our 24/7, media-blitzed, multi-tasking world, with cell phones ringing, instant messaging, Internet connections, constant appointments, constant distractions.

Is it any wonder that Jesse is on constant overload? Certainly, his teenage babysitter is. (Kjerstine Anderson, in an absolutely gut-wrenching performance.) Mama's two bizarre, hyper, compulsive neighbors (Judith-Marie Bergen and Vilma Silva) suggest doctors, alternative therapies and""most frightening of all""Ritalin.

"I'm not putting a nine-year-old on drugs," Mama maintains.

So down the rabbit hole she goes, consulting with a very sincere child psychologist (Caroline Shaffer), a frantic neurophysiologist (Mulamba), a cloyingly sweet and alarmist homeopath (Thom Rivera) and, finally, a no-nonsense psychiatrist (Rivera again).

Is it food allergies? Is it impurities in the environment? Is it chemical imbalance? Is it genetic? All roads, all remedies lead her back to the diagnosis ADD and the remedy Ritalin.

When Mama and Dad finally do put Jesse on Ritalin, he becomes a "good kid." He also becomes a zombie. In their search for an answer to that conundrum, off they go to a mysterious clinic in New Mexico""obvious quackery. And there, Mama discovers the obvious answer.

Maybe the answer to Attention Deficit Disorder &

and our crazy world into the bargain &

is simply to pay more attention. Undivided attention. Focused attention.

You can almost feel the audience breathe a sigh of relief. For Mama, Dad, Jesse""and for the rest of us.

Loomer's play is beautifully and deftly written. Characters morph in and out of persona, addressing the audience as easily as they do each other. Scenes start, stop, lurch forward, sideways, back and then forward again. Absolutely compelling.

Rodriguez as Mama, at the center of this for every scene, is incredible. Sharp, funny, sympathetic, distracted, she is the ringmaster of a non-stop circus. The rest of the cast is as good, supporting her star turn but never disappearing into the scenery.

Director Liz Diamond keeps it edgy, keeps it moving, making us part of this attention-blitzing world with theater-in-the-round staging. Diamond has used a highly reflective polished stage with constantly moving props, flashing TV. screens and insistent music.

Diamond is the resident director at Yale Repertory. For this production, she brought in a group of talented visiting artists. Scenic design is by Robert Brill, the video design is by Peter Flaherty, costumes by Ilona Somogyi, lighting by Christopher Akerlund and sound by Jeremy J. Lee.

OSF's own Lue Morgan Douthit is the dramaturg &

not an easy task with a new play and a playwright who now lives in Ashland.

If I have a problem with this play, this production, it is that the ending begs the issue. Mama and Dad have vowed to spend more time enjoying Jesse as he is. But what about the world around him""those other 26 students in his class, his teachers, his playmates? It is the constant parental problem: how do you balance a kid's joyous self-expression, discovery and pushing limits with the discipline necessary to socialize him and keep him from becoming a self-centered monster?

It is to Loomer's credit that she has posed the question. I suppose it is for each of us to come up with an answer.

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