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Distracted: a Powerful New Play Takes on Our "Pill for Every Ill" Culture

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"I have a little problem with the idea of somebody giving my son drugs to keep him nice and quiet. Maybe I don't think nice and quiet is such a good thing."

So says the father in Distracted, a powerful new play about the difficulties of parenting a child diagnosed with ADD. The play, written by Lisa Loomer and starring Rita Wilson, is having its world premiere at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum.

It's a stinging indictment of our pill-for-every-ill culture, in which parents of hyperactive children find themselves being pressured -- sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly -- by doctors, teachers, and school administrators to medicate their kids. In the case of Jesse, the boy in the play, the pressure comes in the form of a threat that, unless something changes, he'll be put in a special ed class.

At its best, art can change the way we see the world, enriching the national conversation by offering stories that touch people's hearts in a way that rhetorical arguments and op-ed pieces (and, yes, blogs) rarely can.

I first realized the transformative power of art in school when I read Sybil, Disraeli's novel warning his countrymen of the danger of 19th Century England disintegrating into "two nations between whom there is no sympathy." When it was published in 1840 the book became a sensation, and the outrage it provoked propelled fundamental social reforms.

I got the same feeling when I recently saw Distracted with my 17-year-old daughter. "I don't know what to do," cries the father in the play during an argument about whether to give his son Ritalin. "I just want him to be... a happy kid."

What parent can't relate to that? I was particularly touched by the play because with both of my daughters, at different stages of their lives, I had a doctor and a teacher suggest I put them on medication. In both cases I decided against it -- and my girls both made it through difficult periods unmedicated, stronger and more able to navigate life's ups and downs.

This is not to suggest that there aren't children who benefit from medication. Clearly, there are kids with chemical imbalances who are helped by prescription drugs.

Indeed, one of the best things about Distracted is the way it gives both sides of the ADD debate a full airing. In fact, two of the most memorable moments in the play come when a teacher, at her wits' end, says of a problem child, "My entire class is learning disabled when he's there," and when one of the actors playing a pro-Ritalin doctor breaks character and says, "You think I would even remember my fucking lines if it weren't for Ritalin? Before Ritalin, I couldn't even get to my auditions on time!"

But the play also makes clear that, as a culture, we have gotten into the habit of treating childhood as a disease -- and of turning to drugs as the default (and cost-conscious-HMO-friendly) solution. There can be no argument that we are in the midst of a legal-drugging epidemic: America now has over a million kids on antidepressants like Prozac, and more than seven million on Ritalin.

The madness of the pill-popping phenomenon is nicely summed up in this exchange from the play:

Doctor: People with untreated ADD are three times more likely to abuse drugs.
Mama: And by "untreated" you mean --?
Doctor: Unmedicated.
Mama: So, if my son takes a drug, he's less likely to take...drugs?

And later, the Doctor has this to say about the potential side effects of Ritalin: "The most common are loss of appetite, delayed growth, and insomnia, but we can always add another drug like Clonidine to help the insomnia. Some children develop tics, but we can add a little Tenex to control that."

Paging Joseph Heller!

The play also effectively raises a mirror to the parents in the crowd, forcing us to question how much our Blackberry-and-cell-phone-driven, multi-tasking, media overloaded ways are impacting our kids. As Rita Wilson's character puts it at the end of the play: "What if the best thing I can give my son for Attention Deficit Disorder is my... attention?"

I left the theater grateful that this cultural crisis had been dramatically presented in such a moving and engaging way. In a show business world increasingly driven by fluff, it's wonderful to see a production designed to make people think. And to see an actress like Rita Wilson, who never leaves the stage during the play, throw herself and her gifts into such an important subject.

Hamlet told us, "The play is the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Distracted will catch the conscience of anyone who sees it. And in modern America, when enough people are galvanized, the kings -- whether political or medical or directly watching over the FDA -- take heed.

To drug or not to drug our kids, that is the question we need to be asking -- ourselves, our political leaders, and our medical establishment.

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