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Self-medicate with theater

PCPA pushes a heavy dose of reality with Distracted

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THE JOYS OF CHILD-REARING :  Elizabeth Stuart and Andrew Philpot star as stressed out parents in PCPA’s production of Distracted. - PHOTO BY LUIS ESCOBAR/ REFLECTIONS PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO
  • PHOTO BY LUIS ESCOBAR/ REFLECTIONS PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO
  • THE JOYS OF CHILD-REARING : Elizabeth Stuart and Andrew Philpot star as stressed out parents in PCPA’s production of Distracted.
Welcome to a world in which the PTA is a network of drug pushers, childhood is a disorder, and everything is toxic. It’s called reality, and watching two hours of it, as presented in PCPA’s production of Distracted, playing through Sept. 26, is more stressful than writing out a to-do list while watching a
car crash.

 

In Lisa Loomer’s play, Mama (played brilliantly by Elizabeth Stuart) has just turned her back on a career as an interior decorator in order to accomplish the task of diagnosing her son, Jesse. Her husband, performed humorously and sometimes tenderly by Andrew Philpot, is on board with this quest for diagnoses about half the time, and spends the rest of the play pointing out every conceivable flaw in our society’s educational and social structure. Aided by a rotating cast of doctors with funny accents and absurd allergies and drug loyalties, and a gang of neighborhood moms more drugged out than Michael Jackson, the protagonist and her family spin into an uncontrollable realm where divorce, special education, debt, and self-medication are just a Xanax away.

 

When a teacher who can no longer endure his classroom antics diagnoses Jesse with ADD, his mother explores a buffet of possibilities, but happiness does not seem to be one of them. Staged in the Severson Theatre—the smaller square sibling of PCPA’s adjoining Marian Theatre—Distracted quickly establishes the setting as modern and saturated with technology. Everything starts out peaceably enough, with Mama sitting cross-legged on an empty floor, lighting a candle and reciting the Prayer of St. Francis. Her brief meditation is almost immediately interrupted by a cell phone that descends, ringing, from the sky. And she’s off, talking about American Express and cable TV. Furniture flies onto the flat stage—wheeling into place, almost demanding the mother’s attention. Her son’s voice calling from the other room has the same effect.

 

This establishes the pattern for the entire play. Someone wheels in a chair or desk, they spin and discuss the various implications of drugs like Zoloft and Prozac or the hazards of a diet overrun by wheat, dairy, and sugar. Often, these discussions are interrupted by cell phone calls. Large screens mounted on the walls of the theater run constantly, projecting content relevant to the action or dialogue on stage. Sometimes it’s a scene from a movie, a beer commercial, or a neighborhood scene. It’s an overwhelming theatrical experience, giving the audience a taste of what the character of Mama is grappling with.

 

Despite the fact that Distracted boasts fine acting from every one of its nine cast members—most of whom are saddled with multiple roles—it has many of the elements of a one-woman show. Stuart never leaves the stage. Flustered and overwhelmed, she encounters each of the characters in her life like a fresh hurdle. The audience knows all of this because Stuart says so. From the beginning she demonstrates that she is at least self-aware enough to know that she is in a play.

 

“I don’t think a stage is a particularly healthy place for a child,” she says early on, insisting that her son remain safely behind a door labeled “Jesse’s Room.”  Later, when her husband challenges her to name a single person who is a good listener, the lights flare and she insists that the audience is, collectively, a good listener. That’s why she talks to us. That’s why she’s comfortable sharing her poorly veiled fears about her parenting skills, and allowing us to witness her few and generally sour intimate moments with her husband, his threats of divorce, her offer of a blowjob as a consolation for a date night gone wrong.

 

By bringing the audience into her world, collapsing the distinction between reality and fiction, Mama raises the stakes for us, her confidantes. Or it may simply be that Distracted is already so closely aligned with reality that it affords no escape for its audience. Peter Hadres even breaks with character, or rather two of his multiple characters, at various points to defend Ritalin. At these points he plays an actor who takes Ritalin, who happens to be performing various roles that either promote or undermine the drug. Confused yet?

 

By some miracle the play’s greatest strength turns out to be the revelation that each perspective—however absurd it initially seemed—has some validity. The mother, who despairingly asks, “What kind of parent drugs a 9-year-old?” doesn’t love her son any more than her neighbor loves her own children, both of whom are on a long list of psychologist-prescribed medication. The father who defiantly chews gum and asks questions like, “Can’t a boy be a boy anymore for Chrissakes” and “Is childhood a disorder now?” isn’t disinterested in his son’s situation; he’s simply scared and confused. The teacher who initially comes off as judgmental, repressing creativity and pushing drugs on children who fail to conform, has her own motivations. And they’re not all bad. “My entire class is learning disabled when he’s there,” she points out, emphasizing that she doesn’t just have a single student to contend with. She has nearly 30.

 

PCPA bills the play as a comedy, but while it’s difficult not to laugh at the antics of the psychologists, homeopaths, environmental physicians, and parents, I’d argue that it’s even more tempting to cry. Set to the pace of a modern world—something between a gallop and dash—the most an exhausted audience can hope for is less, a stripping away of technology, appointments, and,
well, distractions.

 

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach prefers debauchery to quackery. Send books and booze to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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