A Kid Like Jake

By Daniel Pearleabout face theatre

Directed by Keira Fromm

Produced by About Face Theatre

Parental Insecurity at Center of Drama

With so much pop psychology floating around on how to best raise children, it’s easy for parents who value keeping current with the latest advice to get confused. Concerns about bullying and creating a nurturing environment free of restrictive gender roles are especially common today, but practical solutions are myriad and contradictory. Though under thirty and not a parent himself, author Daniel Pearle worked in grad school helping Manhattan high school students enroll in elite colleges. He wrote a play about the kind of anxiety he often witnessed among parents for his MFA thesis, but depicts ones with a much younger child. Though I am skeptical of young playwrights who have only ever been students, A Kid Like Jake works because it merely reports on what he observed of adults, without pretending to offer simple solutions for children or reflect a universal situation.

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The parents in question are Alex (Katherine Keberlein), who quit her job as a lawyer to be a stay-at-home mom, and Greg (Michael Aaron Lindner), a psychologist. Their son, Jake, is going to start kindergarten soon, and Alex and Greg, but mostly Alex, are very concerned that he get into the most prestigious, artsy, progressive one possible. Alex’s mother, whom she has a difficult relationship with, is helping by contributing most of the money. We see early on that Alex is deeply concerned about her son’s well-being, and tries to be conscientious about how she affects other peoples’ feelings. But she’s extremely stressed, not only by kindergarten admissions, but also her realization that she is pregnant again after suffering a miscarriage.

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While reviewing Alex’s applications, Jake’s adviser, Judy (Cindy Gold), suggests that Alex emphasize Jake’s “gender variant play.” Meaning, because Jake enjoys dressing up as Cinderella, Alex might market him as a token transgender student. Though Judy means well, Alex says she doesn’t want to push too much of an identity on Jake. But as he becomes more insistent on being treated as a girl and lashes out after experiencing teasing for the first time, it becomes clear Alex simply doesn’t want to face this complication. In her mind, however, it does become all the more imperative that Jake get into a private kindergarten. Greg believes that Jake’s worsening behavior necessitates visits to a psychologist, but Alex is adamant that will be harmful, which naturally offends Greg. As her difficult pregnancy progresses and Jake blows his chances with more and more schools, Alex becomes cruel and spiteful towards Greg and Judy while ignoring Jake’s real needs.

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Really, her behavior gets so bad that it is only because of the complexity of Keberlein’s performance in earlier scenes that I had any sympathy for her. She uses fear of bad nutrition as an excuse to be controlling, her idea of discipline is screaming and throwing tantrums of her own, and she’s defensive instead of fixing problems. The reasons for these things are all explained clearly, but her only partial excuse is another failing pregnancy. Lindner plays Greg with the patience of a psychologist, but one who is eventually pushed to the point of having to stand up in defense of his son, even though he isn’t sure of the exact way to do that. The casting of Keberlein and Lindner adds another complication to their relationship in that Greg interprets Alex’s concern over Jake’s eating habits as dissatisfaction with his body. Gold is instantly recognizable as an administrator beset by idiotic parents. While often the voice of reason, Judy is compromised by having to guide families through the unhealthy process of competing for private elementary schools. Jessica Dean Turner plays a professional, but friendly nurse who monitors Alex. She’s also the closest Jake comes to being represented onstage; during a late scene Alex imagines her as him grown-up when she finally acknowledges her regret.

Keira Fromm balances the story so that even though Alex is plainly in denial because she doesn’t want her mistakes scrutinized, her concerns are understandable. Dan Stratton’s set, filled with neatly arranged toys, is a constant reminder these are loving parents. This drama is about them, not the child, and people expecting otherwise will be disappointed. However, Pearle’s representations of what he has witnessed are skillfully drawn and thought provoking, even though he pushes them a little towards his desired conclusion. You may not respect the class of people he observed, but they are undeniably influential. These actors must relish the chance to play characters fighting for the future of the most important thing in their lives. It’s a strong start for a new playwright, and About Face Theatre strengthens it further.

Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed February 19, 2015

This show has been Jeff Recommended

For more information, see A Kid Like Jake’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing in the Upstairs Studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit www.aboutfacetheatre.org. Tickets are $35 with discounts for seniors, students, and groups. Plays Thursdays at Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm through March 15. Running time is one hundred and five minutes without an intermission.