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A Kid Like Jake
by Daniel Pearle
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
November 1, 2014

Alex Hanna, Leigh Williams Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Alex Hanna, Leigh Williams
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Kid Like Jake is a play that’s notable in that we never actually get to meet the title character. Four-year-old Jake is much described by his parents and others, with words such as “creative”, “imaginitive” and “unique”, although it is left to the audience to imagine exactly what he is like. What we are shown is the arduous journey that his parents undertake in order to get him placed into a prestigious New York City private school, and the process that leads them to understand more about their child, the educational system, and themselves in the process.  This is a simply staged play with a cast of four that deals with some very timely issues, and it’s been produced with much care and skill in the Rep’s studio theatre.

When we first meet Alex (Leigh Williams) and Greg (Alex Hanna), they are poring over yet another form they have to fill out in order to get their young son, Jake, considered for admission to a number of high-end private schools in New York.  Alex enlists Greg’s input into the essay she has written, and much talk ensues about how to best represent Jake in order to get him noticed by the schools’ officials. Gradually, we learn more about Jake–that he’s sensitive, imiginative, and individualistic, and that one of his favorite toys is a Cinderella doll.  In meetings with Jake’s pre-school administrator Judy (Susan Pellegrino), we learn more about Jake and the uniqueness of his personality, and particularly issues concerning his gender identity that both of his parents aren’t quite sure how to process.  They love Jake and have always been supportive of him, but issues of “labels” and using his personality as an angle to get him noticed by schools are points of stress, as is Jake’s increasing aggression and acting out at school. Meanwhile, Alex and Greg are also dealing with issues of a complicated pregnancy.  The play is structured as a series of vignettes–at home, at a restaurant, at school, at a doctor’s office, etc.–with each of the scenes shedding more light on the ongoing issues that are challenging Alex and Greg’s assumptions about themselves and their child, as well as their marriage and their own childhood issues that have affected their lives as adults.

This play covers various aspects of the issues concerning gender identity in children, and it also deals with issues of parental expectations, competitiveness in education, and more.  The school selection process seems daunting–even terrifying–for any parent, and the fairness of it all is called into question, as is the question of when parents need to recognize if and when they are putting their own goals for their children ahead of the children’s best interests. As much as Jake is talked about in this play, though, the focus here is mostly on the parents, and their relationship not just with their child but with one another. The fact that Jake never actually appears on stage is both a challenge and an asset for the play, in that he needs to be presented as a fully realized character without actually being seen, while the element of mystery also adds to the drama. The occasional references to various versions of the Cinderella story provide a compelling through-line for the story, as well. The setting is very simple, with a simple unit set designed by Gianni Downs, with panels that open and close to suggest various different settings, such as Greg and Alex’s home, Judy’s office, and more.  The atmospheric lighting, designed by John Wylie, also adds to the overall atmosphere of the play, providing a backdrop for the action and providing a somewhat otherworldly suggestion to a key scene late in the play.

The performances here are critical to the success of this simply structured but intense play, with Williams bearing most of the emotional weight as Alex, on whose journey much of the play focuses. Alex is the one who raises a lot of the questions that are talked about here, and she’s the one who goes through the most change as a character, and Williams puts a great deal of energy into her performance, finding a lot of sympathy even in some of her confrontational moments.  Hanna is also strong as the more even-tempered Greg, whose concern for both his son and his wife are clear, and Pellegrino gives a compelling performance as the concerned, compassionate Judy.  Jacqueline Thompson also turns in a good performance as a sympathetic nurse.  It’s the intensity of the emotions and relationships that propel the story in this play, and all four cast members do an excellent job, with strong rapport and energy.

A Kid Like Jake is a play that’s bound to provoke a great deal of thought and discussion. It’s an intimate play, with a simple setting and a small cast, but dealing with some particularly weighty issues on a very human scale.  It’s a challenging, intriguing, and ultimately fascinating piece of theatre at the Rep Studio.

Susan Pellegrino, Leigh Williams, Alex Hanna Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Susan Pellegrino, Leigh Williams, Alex Hanna
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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