By CECILE SMITH
When I walked into Pinewood’s production of “Distracted,” a contemporary play written by Lisa Loomer and directed by performing arts teacher Doug Eivers, I had to continuously remind myself to keep an open mind. Accurate ADHD representation is hard to come by, especially when it tries to be funny but not disrespectful. As a result, “Distracted” came as a somewhat pleasant surprise, especially after everything I’d heard about it and its portrayal of mental health. It was far from perfect, and there were certainly moments that made me cringe internally, but there were also moments that felt like a perfect encapsulation of my experiences.
The play began with a collection of noises and images flashing across the projected screens that gradually grew louder, brighter, and faster until they stopped. This was clearly meant to recreate what sensory overload can feel like to someone with ADHD, and I would say it was accurate. There were other things too: Jesse’s overreaction to the fire hydrant being too loud, his teachers hating his behavior and demanding a solution, and a doctor breaking character and demanding he couldn’t memorize his lines without Ritalin, all hit very close to home.
The mother’s journey is emotional and realistic, and the “breaking character” mentioned in the play’s description does an excellent job showing the characters’ inner thought processes. There were funny parts too: I was doubling over in laughter when profanities were censored with a loud beep rather than replaced entirely with other words.
Some of the arguments made in the play are completely valid, and there are a number of varying opinions on the issues presented. Medicating a nine-year-old can be worrisome, and it is true that children are misdiagnosed and overmedicated. But this is where the accuracy falls flat. The characters very rarely use the word “medication,” opting instead to say “drugs,” which holds a negative connotation. The line “what kind of parent drugs a 9 year old” feels especially problematic. It is completely reasonable to be apprehensive towards medicating a younger child, but the phrasing of this sentence makes it sound as though anyone who does is an awful parent, when in reality medication can be a literal life-saver for many people.
The characters also continuously refer to the diagnosis as ADD, despite the fact that it has been officially called ADHD since 1987. This striking lack of accuracy feels even more uncomfortable when put in the context of a 2009 interview with New York Times Blog artsbeat. Playwright Lisa Loomer, was inspired to write this play after sending her first child to school, and said, “What I was seeing was an increasing number of children being diagnosed with A.D.D., with bipolar disorder, with anxiety disorder, with depression.” The implication here is that too many children receive diagnoses, which would feel like a more credible argument if it were posited by someone who knew the actual name of the diagnosis.
A play written on such a basis can hardly be expected to feel respectful or accurate to ADHD viewers. “What was causing the increase in diagnoses and the increase in the use of medication? Was it drug companies seeking to make a profit? Did we live in an increasingly difficult world?” Loomer said. While there are characters who believe medicine is incredibly helpful, Mama and Dad, the ones with whom the audience is supposed to empathize the most, are apprehensive at best to the use of medicine, and outright hostile at worst. They do end up trying it, but they give up fairly quickly, and it is shown to take away Jesse’s personality entirely. Another character says that the cause of ADHD and autism may be vaccines, an idea which was scientifically disproven as early as 2003.
While the ending of the play is heartwarming, showing Mama finally listening to Jesse and implying that this will help all their problems, in the context of the story it is awkward. Listening to and spending time with children is never a bad idea, but it will not make the child’s psychological issues with behavior, mood, and schoolwork magically disappear. Medication is not perfect and won’t do this either, but the play’s ending gives the erroneous idea that the answers are much simpler than they really are.
The problematic representations don’t end here. Loomer’s portrayals of OCD and depression are horribly inaccurate and offensive. They are manifested in the ‘weird’ mom Vera, and the teenaged neighbor Natalie. The other moms make fun of Vera for being different, and she intensely overreacts to little things like cups being set down and her purse being spilled out. Every part of her character feels like a gross caricature that exists solely for comedic relief.
Natalie is equally inaccurate. She describes her self-harm (described in the play as “cutting”) to Mama, her neighbor, in a nonchalant manner, just listing off personal details while playing a video game. Throughout my life I have had multiple friends who were hurting themselves, and each time it was never easy for them to tell anyone. It is an act filled with shame and fear, and no one would realistically spew out all the details to their neighbor so casually.
“Distracted” is a play that tries to be comical and present new ideas to the ongoing conversation about mental illness, but is vastly under-researched. To anyone familiar with these conditions, the vast majority of the jokes fall flat and the play is uncomfortable and difficult to enjoy. The saving graces of Pinewood’s production were the amazing performances by the actors; the costume, makeup, and lighting designs; and the beautiful set, which was put up within just a week of Pinewood’s earlier show, Dead Man’s Cell Phone. However the play itself and its writing spread stereotypes and misinformation about a mental disorder that is shockingly misunderstood despite its prevalence.