Encore Michigan

“Kid Like Jake” provokes and probes proper parenting

Review September 21, 2015 Tanya Gazdik

At what point does a parent wanting the best for their child turn into the parent wanting to make themselves look and feel good?

A Kid Like Jake

A Kid Like Jake

A Kid Like Jake, directed by David Wolber, opens the Matrix Theatre Company’s 2015-2016 season and explores that difficult question. The story examines the complexity of parenthood and challenges assumptions about gender, privilege, class, and what it means to be “normal.”

Watching parents Alex (Kaitlyn Valor-Bourque) and Greg (Patrick Hanley) attempt to do right by their son raises this question time and time again. Jake isn’t your typical precocious 4-year-old. He has an obsession with Cinderella and princesses. He’d prefer to go trick or treating dressed as Snow White, rather than the skeleton or pirate costumes his mother offer and which he amusingly deems as “lazy” choices.

Gender identity wasn’t the hot topic it is today when playwright Daniel Pearle wrote the play several years ago. Even if the Kardashians make you cringe, you’d have to be living in a cave not to have heard about Bruce Jenner’s recent transformation into Caitlyn Jenner. Viewers of the play today are likely watching it through a different lens than what was originally intended.  It’s not shocking, but it still leaves one questioning how to deal with such issues.

Greg, the even-keeled psychotherapist, tries unsuccessfully to calm his increasingly stressed-out wife, former lawyer Alex, as she wades through the lengthy application process to get Jake into a Manhattan private school. “I thought applying to law school was hard,” an exasperated Alex tells Greg as he attempts to review the essay she has prepared explaining what makes Jake special.

Jake’s pre-school teacher Judy (Krystle Futrell) attempts to guide Alex through the process. The two are supposed to be friends, but one is left wondering if Alex really likes Judy or if she isn’t just using her in hopes of the help she can give in talking up Jake to the prospective schools. Their relationship comes to a head in a scene late in the play. In that scene and many others, it’s easy to forget you are watching a play and to feel more like a voyeur into private conversations. All three lead actors are convincing in their parts, especially as the characters become emotional when their buttons are pushed. Valor-Bourque is especially convincing as the increasingly unsympathetic Alex, who only somewhat redeems herself in the end.

The point of tension is over Judy, who has been through this process with hundreds of other students, encouraging Alex to consider playing up Jake’s unique embracing of what she delicately refers to as “gender-variant play” in the applications. Although Alex has been supportive of Jake’s fondness for what has been traditionally girl-oriented type play in the home, she is
uncomfortable with the idea of putting so much focus on it, admitting at one point that she hopes it’s just a phase.

The nurse (Allison Megroet) in Alex’s obstetrician’s office, is the embodiment of sweetness and counters the brittle Alex with much-needed positive energy. She is also featured in several dream sequences, which are meant to help us sympathize with Alex, but end up creating confusion. The audience seemed to look at each other with a “what was that” after each of them.

Hanley is perfectly cast as the effeminate husband of the strong-willed Alex. In most cases she likes his malleability, except when she’s blaming him for Jake’s lack of interest in stereotypically boyish activities. “It’s not like you’ve ever taken him to the park or thrown a ball in his direction,” Alex screams at him in one especially poignant scene.

When Jake begins acting out and showing some aggression, possibly picking up on the stress his mother is feeling, his parents are forced to consider whether or not his behavior could or should be cause for concern.

The audience is left wondering the same thing. There’s no neat and tidy ending to this play. One can only hope for the best for kids like Jake in today’s world.

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