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UM's Distracted keeps its comedic focus

In American culture we lament—and often laugh at—how perpetually distracted we are. It's not enough that our attentions are spread thin by an onslaught of emails, texts, tweets and Facebook posts, but we're constantly trying to keep up with everything else. Have you read the new article in The Atlantic? Are you eating the right vegetables? How to find time for your parents/children/friends? Recall this scene: You're having a nice dinner with the family and a phone rings. The conversation is put on hold as everyone searches their pockets.

Distracted, a play by Lisa Loomer (Girl, Interrupted), deals with the cultural baggage of distractions. But its main storyline focuses on a particular issue: children diagnosed with attention deficit disorders. In the story we meet a mother and father spiraling into despair while dealing with their son's hyperactivity and troubles at school. Throughout the course of the play, the parents are torn between the advice of medical experts, their kid's teacher, other parents and each other, all in the quest for a solution.

In the University of Montana's School of Theatre & Dance production, directed by graduate student Hillary Sea Bard, Kelly Bouma plays a woman trying to balance a career as an interior designer with being a mother to an unruly 9-year-old. Bouma is wonderfully neurotic while still being smart and likable. In the first few minutes of the play we see her meditating to the light of a candle saying, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." But the peace lasts for mere seconds before the phone rings. From there, almost no scene offers any form of serenity. We see characters constantly distracted—by each other or by their own thoughts, which they speak as asides to the audience.

Sometimes a scene is interrupted by a quick jaunt into another scene. For instance, in the midst of talking to a psychologist about her son, Mama suddenly become preoccupied by the shoes she ordered from Zappos. For a moment, we are briefly transported back to her house where she receives the shoes, ships them back, orders seven more pairs and then appears back in the doctor's office to continue their conversation. (The hopping around is a clever way to keep the audience in a constant state of distraction as well.)

click to enlarge Distracted stars, from left, Kelly Bouma, Carissa Lund, Elizabeth Bennett and Cally Shine. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Distracted stars, from left, Kelly Bouma, Carissa Lund, Elizabeth Bennett and Cally Shine.

Comedy is key to this play and most everyone in UM's production delivers it with good timing. Steve Hodgson has livened up the stage in several UM productions—as a Russian dance instructor (You Can't Take it With You), the Persian king (1,001 Arabian Nights) and starred with Bouma in the fantastic A Comedy of Errors—and does it again, this time as the father to the distracted boy. He and Bouma feed off each other like a good sitcom couple. They exude a warmth together like good allies do, which makes the times they turn on each other all the more uncomfortable.

A few characters are written as caricatures including the teacher, played by Erin Agner, as well as two other moms, played by Cally Shine and Carissa Lund. That doesn't stop the actors from being highly entertaining. Agner's version of the stern, spectacled teacher is precise even if we never see much more to her. And the moms, I think, are meant to work as means to a point. These are the women who medicate their ADD children, and even pop pills themselves. We aren't meant to totally dismiss them. They are, after all, Loomer's attempt to try and explore all possibilities and viewpoints for dealing with ADD kids—though from the way she has written her characters, you can tell she stands on the side of anti-meds. The other moms are oblivious in one instance and defensive in another. In the end, though, we laugh at them because they say all the wrong things.

Elizabeth Bennett as Natalie, the gothy teenage babysitter, is incredible. She plays up her character's own ADD symptoms without diminishing the heaviness of her situation. And then there's Rigel Rae, who splits herself between three characters. As a nurse she appears only briefly, but the other two are notable and so far flung from each other. You barely recognize her as both the smooth, professional, Southern-accented Dr. Zavala and the gum-chewing waitress who's so distracted by the restaurant's television she can barely take a step forward without running into something. Finally, Jesse, the the aggravating son with ADD, is played with charm by Monroe Ayers, mostly as an offstage voice.

At the heart of the story is the anxiety of making good choices for your children, and just when it starts to feel like a public service announcement, Loomer reins it back in with entertaining dialogue. For her part, Sea Bard has taken a sometimes heavy-handed but interesting play and made it thoroughly entertaining. That the UM actors seem to be having a great time with the distraction theme makes it easy for the audience to stay glued.

Distracted continues at the Masquer Theatre Thu., Oct. 31, through Sat., Nov. 2, at 7:30 PM nightly. $16/$14 for seniors and students/$10 for kids age 12 and younger.

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