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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

When you have a child, it's like your heart walking around outside your body.— Mama

Lisa Loomer's Distracted
Rita Wilson & Bronson Pinchot in Lisa Loomer's Distracted.
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Three TV screens are changing channels by themselves with accompanying blaring sound tracks on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum. After a few minutes of this while waiting for Lisa Loomer's Distracted to begin, you get the point. Although the play's theme is ADD (attention deficit disorder), the disease may be symptomatic of our civilization in which attention is rapidly becoming an endangered species of mind.

The Taper's commendable commitment to the development of an artist pays off watching the growing solidity and increasingly refined structure of Loomer's work. She has always attacked a specific abscess in our society. The Waiting Room took on the mutilation of women in the name of beautification. Living Out focused on the nanny situation and Expecting Isabel on the difficulties of child conception.

In Distracted Mama (Rita Wilson) begins with meditating on the St. Francis prayer but her peace is swiftly disturbed by the screams of her son Jesse (Hudson Thames). Jesse doesn't pay attention in school or get along with the other kids. Neighbor ladies such as Vera, the wonderfully tart Johanna Day, and Sherry, the anorexic Marita Geraghty, recommend all the latest drugs, doctors and treatments they've tried on their kids or heard about at the PTA.

Mama consults four doctors. All arel played by Bronson Pinchot who, in a wonderful concept, breaks the fourth wall to address the audience as an actor who can't remember his lines without Ritalin. Another doctor, Jesse's teacher, and three other characters are portrayed with comic authority by Stephanie Berry. A sub-plot involves Sherry's daughter, Natalie (Emma Hunton), Jesse's baby-sitter who cuts herself.

Dad (Ray Porter) is resistant to drugs and medical intervention. He just wants his kid to be normal but not at the expense of turning him into a nice quiet vegetable who watches the Weather Channel for three days.

Some of Loomer's comparisons, such as President Bush's behavior and the emigration of American pioneers to ADD, seem a bit of a stretch. However, they do underscore her concept that ADD is a part of our DNA.

The play's ending has a bi-polar effect, which is appropriate to its subject. It's not a give-away to say that Mama is inclined to let Jesse be, and his ultimate appearance and enchanting Indian dance around the stage are heartwarmingly joyous. After being an off-stage voice throughout the play, the appearance of this delightful kid brings the theorizing of the play down to earth and also symbolizes Mama's acceptance of him as he is. On the other hand, it seems simplistic to assume that just letting him be, which they were doing in the first place, is suddenly going to work. The only thing that's different is Mama's attitude. She's been advised to pay attention to him, to fill his attention deficit with her own attention and, in Loomer's ending as expansively inhabited by Rita Wilson, the anxiety seems to have gone out of her attention.

Although Loomer has always been an issue writer, her focus on the ADD at the expense of character development is questionable. We never know anything about Mama and Dad, who don't even have names. Their professions and their relationships are ignored. We only see how they and their one-dimensional neighbors react to their children's behavior. That said, this is Loomer's best play to date and the most skillful in terms of technical construction and intrinsic humor that goes beyond one-liners.

The play is brilliantly interpreted by director Leonard Foglia, abetted by Elaine J. McCarthy's set and projection design and Jon Gottlieb's sound design. The projections include portraits of Van Gogh, considered a artist whose genius benefited from ADD, and close-ups of the locales where the scenes are taking place, such as Georgia O'Keefe paintings for the New Mexico clinic of last resort.

Rita Wilson grounds the cast with unaffected charm as a humane and empathetic Mama whose anxiety is never over the top. Ray Porter plays the let-him-be Dad as a long-haired left-over hippie with a loving strength that matches Mama. Both Bronson Pinchot and Stephanie Berry have a wonderful versatility which allows them to draw humorous distinct portraits of their many characters. Johanna Day earned her consistent ovations as the obsessive-compulsive neighbor Vera who always winds up her discoveries and harangues with a distracted glare and a flight from the stage with a barely articulated "'Bye" which tells more about her life than a lengthy monologue.

Last to appear but far from least is the lovable and irresistible Hudson Thames. His dancing deserves a show all to itself.

Playwright: Lisa Loomer
Director: Leonard Foglia
Cast: Rita Wilson (Mama), Hudson Thames (Jesse), Ray Porter (Dad), Stephanie Berry (Mrs. Holly, Dr. Waller, Nurse, Carolyn, Waitress), Bronson Pinchot (Dr. Broder, Dr. Jinks, Dr. Karnes, Dr. Zavala), Marita Geraghty (Sherry), Johanna Day (Vera), Emma Hunton (Natalie).
Set & Projection Design: Elaine J. McCarthy
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Costume Design: Robert Blackman
Sound Design: Jon Gottlieb
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, one intermission
Running Dates: March 15-April 29, 2007
Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Reservations; (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on March 25th.
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