Smile Politely

“He’s not exactly Johnny Basketball”

“All we’re talking about is gender-variant play,” she intones sensitively while a young mother searches for meaning in her coded language. In Daniel Pearle’s 2013 drama, A Kid Like Jake, “gender-variant play” refers to the titular character’s preference for Cinderella figurines to army men. Directed by Katie Baldwin Prosise, A Kid Like Jake tugs at the heartstrings with fine performances from a capable ensemble cast. 

Alex and Greg, a young New York City couple, aim to enroll their four-year-old son, Jake, in one of Manhattan’s exclusive, expensive, and wildly competitive private schools. Exhausted by the nerve-racking application process, Jake’s mother, Alex (played by Lindsey Gates-Markel), obsesses over her son’s test scores and upcoming interviews while Jake’s father, Greg (Mike Prosise), attempts to make light of the situation to ease Alex’s tension. Struggling to complete the application essay, Alex seeks guidance from their son’s pre-school administrator, Judy (Kay Bohannon Holley), who advises Alex to focus on what makes Jake unique: his “gender-variant play.” Mystified by Judy’s interest in capitalizing on Jake’s tendencies to play with “girl stuff” rather than his curiosity or intellect, Alex fears pigeonholing her son before he even begins kindergarten.

Eventually yielding to Judy’s advice, Alex and Greg take Jake on a dozen interviews. Never having felt the need to hide his interest in Disney princesses before, Jake begins to experience bullying for the first time. The stress of these situations causes Jake to begin acting out both verbally and physically. He engages in physical altercations with other children; at one point he even throws his beloved Cinderella figurine at his grandmother.  

Perhaps the greatest surprise is the fact that the audience never sees the four-year-old Jake; nevertheless, we become well acquainted with the child. Through Alex, the audience is witness to Jake’s intelligence as she reports his high test scores and insightful questioning, always pointing to her son’s potential. Greg, on the other hand, makes us fall in love with a precocious little boy in a dress whom we never see. While Alex helps the audience understand what Jake can be, it is through Greg that we are able to see who Jake is: a unique and challenging child.

Pearle’s triumph is in his ability to craft a set of well-rounded, three-dimensional parents. Bucking the norms that often dictate stories about gender-questioning children, Jake’s father, competently played by Mike Prosise, has no discernable qualms with playing dress-up with his son. Although he introduces the idea of putting Jake in therapy early in the play, Greg does not seek to correct his son’s behavior. Rather, he merely wishes to help Jake find techniques to cope with being “different” in the face of adversity. Alex, on the other hand, is reluctant to let Jake’s “gender-variant play” define his entire personality and begins limiting Jake’s playtime tendencies to private spaces. Terrified that schools, teachers, and other children will only see Jake as some “girly-boy” instead of the complex, imaginative, intelligent child that he is, Gates-Markel’s infectious nervous energy dictates the rhythm of the play.

The other half of the ensemble rounds-out this well-cast piece. Station veteran Kay Bohannon Holley beautifully plays Judy, Jake’s pre-school administrator and Alex’s dear friend. From the outset, Holley’s subtlety and warmth not only pull us in to the play but also help to mitigate Gates-Markel’s well-placed neurotic anxiety. The scenes taking place in Judy’s office are some of the strongest; Holley’s on-stage presence grounds the play and we feel safe in her capable hands.

The turning point for Alex comes after a blowout with Greg. Having just suffered a major loss, Alex dreams of Jake, now a beautiful adult princess who comes to ease her parental uncertainties. Doubling as Alex’s obstetrical nurse earlier in the play, Stefanie Senior’s simple, reserved performance leaves a lasting mark on the audience.  

Notwithstanding the positives this production has to offer, it is unable to reach its full potential. Christina Renner’s scenic design seems as if it might offer opportunities for two distinct environments to interact in some compelling way. A living room on one side of the stage and an office on the other help support the central conflict of the play, drawing strict boundaries between public and private space. Unfortunately, the entirety of the play takes place on one half of the stage or the other; the performers are unable to meet in the middle. In a small theatre, such as the Station, every inch of performance space becomes important, yet Renner’s design renders the center eight feet of the stage unusable. The actors often seem distractingly trapped; moments of heightened conflict lose tension as they struggle to put distance between themselves and their verbal opponent.

Despite the challenges offered by the scenic design, Ms. Prosise manages to elicit solid performances from her cast. Holley’s warmth, Mr. Prosise’s heartbreaking humor, and Gates-Markel’s driving energy make A Kid Like Jake worth seeing. 

Daniel Pearle’s A Kid Like Jake continues through October 18th. For reservations, call 217-384-4000 or visit the Station website.

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Photos by Sam Logan.

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