If art imitates life, then there isn't a better example than "Distracted," the OSF play which recently opened. With insight and steely humor, it examines the abiding exigencies of raising a child who falls outside of the norm.




In "Distracted," Mama (as the mother is called in the play) and Dad are coping with 9-year-old Jesse, a boy who is bright, rebellious, verbal, and whose mind skips across life as a flat stone thrown over still water. He finds it difficult to exit his high-speed life for a rest stop where he might quietly finish a task. Any task. For his parents, he's more than a handful. At school he's disruptive, ill-suited to a classroom setting where youngsters are taken through the day, one lesson to the next, and remaining at a desk, passively, is requisite. Jesse is a round peg in a square hole. Hence the school and his parents play wack-a-mole with him with little success: push him down in one spot, and he pops up in another.




Parenting any child is an existential experience fraught with moments of pure joy unlike no other, as well as deep frustration and pain. It can be a fearsome journey.




And when the problems seem insurmountable, it is increasingly common for parents to seek out professional help of the psychological type. Or be encouraged to do so by well-meaning (even desperate) educators.




"Distracted" captures wonderfully the anguish of parents who want beyond all measure to help their child live successfully. Mama and Dad are told that Jesse is, well, distracted, a euphemism, as it turns out, for the diagnosis of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), something neither wants to face. Suddenly they find themselves all but swamped with conflicting analyses of how best to treat a syndrome they are not convinced is either sound or relevant. Drugs are prescribed, meaning ritalin, street name "speed." While contraindicated &

why would anyone give a hyperactive child anything resembling speed?"" ritalin apparently has a calming effect, slowing the brain down. Mama and Dad reluctantly make the decision to give it to Jesse and almost immediately miss the wack-a-mole kid whose personality was the source of so much joy, anger and frustration. Jesse is leveled, newly pliable, but he is also no longer Jesse.




All manner of incisive questions are raised in this truly fine production. One that comes to mind is: If schools are the round hole, perhaps it is this anachronistic institution called public education that needs a systemic overhaul and not angular kids like Jesse. For kids who don't function well in the classroom setting, there are few viable alternatives and the choices for parents are difficult if not impossible to sort out. It can feel like dropping into an abyss; certainly it's the quintessential rock and a hard place.




What is compelling about "Distracted" is that like all good art it engages on many levels, certainly as a metaphor for contemporary life. Gradually the play reveals that it isn't just Jesse who is distracted, but his parents and their contemporaries as well &

even the professionals who stand ready to evaluate and diagnose, are harried and multitasking. Cell phones, pagers, e-mail, caller ID, Internet, Blackberries, iPhones, iPods, TV, Bluetooth, long commutes, schedules stuffed like deli sausage. All define modern existence. So distracted are we that there is little time to pay close attention to, or fully engage, those who are ever-present but often a blur &

like our children. Or a spouse, partner, friend. Life can be distracting, especially when the word "busy" becomes the defining template.




Perhaps, when it comes to children and relationships of all kinds, less can be more. Kids need to hang out, not be scheduled like mini-CEOs. Parents need to hangout with them or with each other. There may be a nugget of truth in the idea that the "deficit" children feel is the absence of parents in their lives. And in their desperation to get their attention they resort to some extreme behaviors. Rereading that sentence, it seems almost flip. Shallow and superficial. But perhaps not. That may be one response to what has become an ubiquitous diagnosis (far more boys than girls), with drugs often the remedy of choice. The meta-truth is that there is not one easy answer available. Every posited solution is laced with ambiguity and every decision textured with uncertainty.




What is beyond doubt is that parenting a child requires commitment, tenacity, and sustained attention. And, of course, love. It's a labyrinth that can ask far more of parents than they feel capable of giving. It is also the source of an unalloyed happiness so profound that language fails. With perfect pitch, "Distraction" reminds that to experience both fully, resist life's false distractions. That's one idea, among many, that can be found in this exceptional play.