Fall Play Hyper-Focus: An Absorbing Look at ADHD

Last week's two-run sold-out production of Hyper-Focus in the Black Box Theater opened a much-needed discussion about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.) According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over six million children between the ages of 2-17 are diagnosed with the condition, characterized by a lack of concentration, impulsivity, excessive movement or talking, and, at times, hyper-focus. Director of Theater Kyle Reynolds thoughtfully chooses a production each year that challenges the audience to think deeply about a topic, often a real-world issue, in this case, ADHD, and brought in interdisciplinary partnerships with the English and history departments and the Wellness Team.

The play opens with TJ (Gordon Beck) attempting to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school but gets verbally waylaid as random thoughts pop into his head. Believing he was being intentionally disruptive, his teacher (Ella Golinto) reprimands him and sends him to the principal’s office (Jada Asapokahi). TJ is no stranger to the principal’s office for his undisciplined behavior, and his mother (Alice McClure) retrieves him from school. Frustrated with his actions, Mom sends TJ to a session with psychiatrist Sigmund, who diagnoses TJ with ADHD and prescribes medication to control his behavior. Mom and TJ butt heads over his medication as TJ doesn’t want to take it. Mom gives TJ a guitar to focus on, which draws the attention of a moon-struck fellow student, Sandy (Faith Potter), and eventually leads to awkward and sweet encounters between the two.

The stage direction throughout the play accurately captured TJ’s kinetic frame of mind, often buzzing with random and disconnected thoughts. Standing in the center of the stage, TJ is circled by a number of the characters speaking at the same time so that the audience thoroughly understands the cacophony in TJ’s head. When it’s time to take his medicine, the characters appear from behind closed panels shaking the pill bottles like maracas at TJ, underscoring the constant battle to find the correct mix of medications to control his behavior. The play is punctuated with some rock songs that TJ plays with abandon.

Despite TJ’s outcast role at school, there are a few people in TJ’s orbit that make life more manageable. His teacher, Mr. Franklin (Zaire Ramiz), recognizes TJ's condition after TJ is called out for misbehaving in class. Mr. Franklin confides to TJ that he also has ADHD. After hearing him play the guitar and sing, Sandy develops a schoolgirl crush on TJ and pines after him. TJ, too, buries his affection for Sandy but writes a song for her. After a few cringe-worthy encounters, the two become a pair.

After the show, Reynolds arranged a panel discussion with the playwright Jim Knable who wrote the play in 2004 and was inspired by his college roommate with ADHD. Knable said that he intended for the audience to empathize with ADHD students and to understand their experience. Working with the KO students and Reynolds, Knable ensured that the details of the play are accurate and up-to-date, including a more nuanced understanding of Thomas Jefferson’s conflicting and contradictory past and the ADHD diagnosis itself. 

The panel also included Associate Director of Enrollment Michelle Kollen and her son Leo who was diagnosed with ADHD, Brenna Chiaputti, KO’s MS counselor, and Katelin Carr, a neuropsychologist. The discussion centered around the shifting diagnosis (and terminology) of ADHD. Carr noted that medications to treat ADHD had come a long way in improving a child’s behaviors. She added that there is a less stigmatizing attitude towards the condition, and schools are more positively accommodating and supporting those diagnosed. In the past, Carr said, one of the criteria for proving an ADHD diagnosis was to have the symptoms show themselves before the age of seven. However, inattention was added later because it might not reveal itself at a very young age.

Michelle Kollen and Lucas were very open about his challenges over the years. The family went to a host of doctors to treat his diagnosis. “The play was really relatable,” Lucas Kollen said. “I had that internal struggle, and I didn’t understand how to control myself fully. I learned to keep those people around you that you can lean on for support.”
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Located in West Hartford, CT just steps from Blue Back Square, Kingswood Oxford is a private school inspiring co-ed day students in grades 6-12 with a college preparatory curriculum. Empowered students become clear confident communicators, resourceful problem-solvers, and ethical leaders. KO: where unlimited potential meets endless opportunities.
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