The KC Rep's A Christmas Carol honors the holiday in its heart,
but the Unicorn's Distracted forgets to make a point 

I've never had to cook a holiday meal by myself, but I contribute the occasional side dish. Last Thanksgiving, my offering was aloo gobi, a dish of sweet potato and cauliflower. I thought it was a great alternative to the usual marshmallow-topped casserole, until this year when the dish was specifically unrequested.

Turns out, everyone likes the traditional menu just fine. And why not? As I sank into the memory-foam mattress of mashed potatoes and splashed myself with gravy, I wondered why I'd felt the need to mess with perfection.

So it is with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's 30th-anniversary production of A Christmas Carol. I assumed that it was a show I wouldn't choose to see, but five minutes in, I knew I was wrong. There's a simple reason that this roasty chestnut of Christmas shows has abided. It's a fabulous story, one the Rep tells with imaginative energy.

The magic starts with John Ezell's cunningly miniaturized and detailed London streetscape, which makes graceful set and cast transitions via a revolving stage. Charming artifices, such as a jumbo wreath "title card" that makes the set look like a Victorian Christmas card, add to the storybook feel.

Throughout, Jeffrey Cady's dramatic lighting design sets atmospheres of warmest cheer and starkest gloom. Lacy L. Hansen's costumes are festively appropriate (with the notable exception of the Ghost of Christmas Past, who looks jarringly modern in her prom dress and Halloween wig). Organ, harp and a strolling violin provide period-friendly instrumentation. And the narrating Charles Dickens is played with authority by Charles Fugate, who also bears a nice resemblance to the author.

In a role that's easily caricatured, Gary Neal Johnson plays an Ebenezer Scrooge of convincing misery at story's start, and he makes an equally convincing transformation by the deeply satisfying end. Along the way, he effectively conveys the pathos of a boyhood and a young adulthood deprived of family love.

I've always found the conceit of Scrooge moving in and out of scenes unseen as kind of corny, but Johnson's performance won me over. His Scrooge, expressive and wizened, is especially touching amid the merriment of Fezziwig's party or while observing the Cratchit family's meager feast.

Director Kyle Hatley moves his story and large cast briskly and makes full use of the Spencer Theatre's trap doors, lifts and other mechanical devices for crowd-pleasing special effects, a couple of which appear to be used more for spectacle than for emotional impact (the initial, monumental height of the Ghost of Christmas Present, for instance). And the Ghost of Christmas Present's glad-handing tour up the aisles came as an unhappily startling surprise, especially with his anachronistic mention of the Jayhawks game. (The audience ate it up.)

But these are minor flaws in what is, on balance, a feast of a holiday show, one with its heart so obviously in the right place.

Director Cynthia Levin joked in her introductory speech that forgetting to turn off a cell phone likely wouldn't disturb Distracted, which hurls a barrage of aural and visual stimuli — ringing phones, movie snippets, bright computer monitors — at its audience.

As the play begins, Mama, played by Katie Gilchrist, attempts to meditate by repeating St. Francis' prayer, which begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Her attempts are stymied by calls from telemarketers and protests from her 9-year-old son, Jesse (Zackary Hoar), who refuses to get dressed for school.

Jesse is no more cooperative at school. Mama and Dad (Rusty Sneary) are called in for a conference, at which they're informed that their child's disruptive behavior makes it impossible for his classmates to concentrate. Specialists are recommended to administer testing for attention-deficit disorder. Thus begins an ever-escalating series of consultations, evaluations and treatments. Diagnosis comes fast, but cure is elusive.

But this makes the story sound coherent. In fact, every short scene is further fragmented by multiple interruptions. Characters jump roles, furniture flies into wings, and conversations scatter every which way — most interestingly into metacommentary. The play roils with zeitgeist-specific maladies: not only ADHD but also screen addiction, social-media overload, overstimulation, overscheduling, overmedication, and personality as pathology, all unfolding with lifelike randomness and shapelessness.

Distracted is most funny and most successful when Mama's paranoia unexpectedly projects itself onto routine moments, such as consultations with therapists and teachers and psychiatrists, and conversations with other mothers. The fourth wall is often breached, to humorous effect — an apt strategy in a play that questions where the boundaries of normal behavior lie. The play also finds wit in such scattered targets as the obligatory nature of a married couple's date-night sex, Zappos and the ever-rising heights of passive-aggressive behavior.

Child professionals (wacky) and housewives (desperate) are also called on to provide much of the humor. But no matter how lightly and expertly they're played — Rachel Hirshorn, Andi Meyer, Amy Urbina, Molliann McCulley, Dina Kirschenbaum and Mark Thomas all do fine slapstick work — many of these characters (a neighborhood teen who cuts herself, a doctor unable to talk on the phone because she's weeping over a breakup, a lonely and oversensitive holistic therapist, mothers suffering from compulsive eating and extreme anxiety) have undercurrents of sadness that make it hard to laugh wholeheartedly.

Most of these practitioners and neighbors are also heavily medicated. Baggies of Xanax fall out of handbags, and physicians attempt to heal themselves, adjusting dosage as necessary. Luckily for all concerned, insurance payments and money for alternative therapies and special camps don't seem to be worries. Fingers are wagged at vaccinations, pesticides, radiation, mold, food coloring, food sensitivities, homeopathic tinctures — all used, again, as comic fodder. If meant as satire, there's little bite, feeling so ripped from contemporary op-eds as to verge on feeling passé.

Gilchrist makes a sympathetic Mama conscientiously searching for an answer for her child, but it's Sneary's Dad who anchors the production with his unwavering faith in Jesse's innate goodness. Dad points out that Jesse's offending behaviors echo the acts he committed himself as a boy. Failure to concentrate in class and obey one's parents might be symptoms of ADHD, but they're also "symptoms of childhood."

Tabitha Pease has done too good a job of replicating domestic jumble, and Richard Sprecker can't be blamed for the flickering ugliness of his Twitter-Facebook-CNN projections, which only magnify reality after all.

Playwright Lisa Loomer is trying to make a larger statement about diseases du jour and what ADHD says about our own distracted age, but she doesn't seem sure just what that statement is. I left the theater in serious need of ibuprofen, not Ritalin.


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