By Ted AYALA
Shortly before the Milestone Theatre’s June 30 through July 10 run of Lisa Loomer’s “Distracted” at the Pasadena Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theatre, I came across an oddly prescient article in the New York Review of Books. Under the title, “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” Marcia Angell reviewed a clutch of books examining the world and ethics of psychiatry, especially its turn to regarding mental illness as a “chemical imbalance” requiring treatment through drugs. The statistics make for sober reading.
“It seems that Americans are in the midst of a raging epidemic of mental illness. For children, the rise is even more startling – a 35 fold increase [in mental disorders between 1987 and 2007]. Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children, well ahead of physical disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome,” reports Angell.
Looking over the shared themes of the different books under review, she added, “[They] agree on the disturbing extent to which the companies that sell psychoactive drugs – through various forms of marketing, both legal and illegal, and what many people would describe as bribery – have come to determine what constitutes a mental illness and how the disorders should be diagnosed and treated.”
“So Ritalin doesn’t cure? You can take it for the rest of your life and it doesn’t cure a thing?” is the incredulous reply of the mother of Jesse – the foul-mouthed 9-year-old around whom “Distracted” revolves – to the doctor who is urging her to have her son take Ritalin.
“Distracted” presents a window into the average middle-class family faced with living and coping with an unruly child who may be (or may not be) suffering a mental disorder. Hovering over them is the Faustian decision whether to medicate their child and coping with the ethical quandary that behavior modification through drugs can itself be dehumanizing.
The production of “Distracted” was sharply directed by Mike Alva. In its bare bones, no-nonsense conception, the play was allowed to cut through with all the efficacy of a freshly sharpened dagger. This impression was augmented by the intimate confines of the Pasadena Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theatre, which looks to sit about 40 people.
The Milestone players were uniformly excellent, with several of them juggling multiple roles that required stop-on-a-dime changes in mood and character.
Christine Anatone and Michael Sanchez were a snug fit as Jesse’s concerned parents, both of them managing to exude genuine warmth and concern for their child.
Selina Ruiz exhibited an outrageous sense of comic timing and flair in her turns as Dr.
Waller and Jesse’s teacher.
Sumiko Braun nearly stole the show in her turn as the socially awkward neighbor Vera with a frenetic sense of humor, yet illuminated with a somewhat disturbing and dark core.
Justin Dabuet, too, excelled in his turns, heaping loads of smarmy charm and wit to his characters.
If there was a complaint, it was in respect to the play itself. For all the acidulous wit and mordent observation in the previous scenes, the soggy final scene, with its airbrushed happy ending came as a disappointment. One wished that with her dagger drawn out, Loomer had pushed in to the hilt and twisted it to the full. The ending, when it arrives, feels like a tacked-on afterthought; a much too easy answer – despite her claims to the contrary – after the difficult questions that were wrestled with in previous scenes.
Nevertheless, the Milestone Theatre Company’s production was a triumph of brightly burning talent, astute direction, and trenchant insight.