Dallas — How do we define beauty? Society often defaults to the non-answer “it is in the eyes of the beholder” because of our general belief that we know it when we see it. From this place of comfort, we have developed an extensive vocabulary of aesthetic terms for discussing all things beautiful. A Kid Like Jake at Second Thought Theatre is a thing of beauty—from the direction to the actors’ performances to the production values, all respecting and giving energy to Daniel Pearle’s probing script.
How do we define gender? Adults often think of gender simply as male and female because of our general belief that we know it when we see it. For a long time, we did not develop an extensive vocabulary because of the perception that there was nothing to discuss. Genitalia ruled; we were done. But apparently we’re not. Sometimes it is as the lyrics of the Sesame Street song by Raposo and Stone point out “One of these things is not like the other.” In A Kid Like Jake, Pearle probes what happens when loving, well-intentioned parents are faced with raising a child that is not like the others—a little boy who prefers Cinderella to G.I. Joe.
Set during the fall of 2012, four-year old Jake and his parents are living in a privileged area of Manhattan. His parents are working with an academic advisor to get him placed in a top tier school. Pearle, a one-time tutor of privileged children, observed that people are at their best and their worst when they’re trying to do what’s right for their kids. Using that, in A Kid Like Jake, all of the adults are intensely focused on what is best for the child.
Pearle’s script acknowledgment has the following quote from Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, “I want to put happiness within his grasp.” So it is with Jake’s team: his father Greg (Ian Ferguson), his mother Alex (Jenny Ledel), and placement advisor Judy (Christie Vela). Alex is insistent upon placing Jake in an elite environment, but for Greg, the environment just needs to be a positive one for Jake and public school should not be excluded from consideration. Judy is encouraging Alex and Greg to feel comfortable with allowing Jake’s specialness to guide their decision-making. The placement search dangerously consumes every moment of Alex’s life, including chats with her doctor’s nurse (Kia Boyer). Alex and Greg’s differing approaches to the school search feed the conflict in the play.
Director Matthew Gray’s quiet hand skillfully distills the abstractions within the script through one: binarism, within this marriage and within the child (gender variance). Though the focus of the adults is on Jake, the audience never sees him, so this is not a simple play about a little boy any more than gender is simply about genitalia. Alex and Greg know their child is different but they are not responding to that in the same way. They become like close binary stars pulling alternatingly from and toward each other as they orbit around their child. This theme is foreshadowed and supported through the blurred binary code projected onto the scrim, part of a series of thoughtfully abstract artistic scenic design elements of director Matthew Gray and technical director Drew Wall.
The emotional arc in this play is dizzying in its complex intensity which is driven primarily through Alex. Pearle throws everything at us—love, fear, anxiety, regret, anger, optimism, distrust, sincerity, acceptance, rejection, loss, and hope. Jenny Ledel is at once breathtaking and exhausting as Alex, maintaining the intensity her character while also finding so many levels. She has a reveal scene with Boyer that achieves a nakedness that is stunningly artful. The lighting for that scene is almost a character within itself. The area lighting throughout the show, designed by Aaron Johansen is almost a primer in how to tell story through lighting.
Ferguson gives heart-wrenching authenticity to Greg as the supportive spouse, and the father that loves unconditionally. He and Ledel are engaged, committed, and believable. Ledel, Ferguson and Vela create a concern for these characters such that the audience does not want to abandon them, and must keep watching. Vela is magnificent as Judy, caringly stitching back the frayed fragments created by the parents.
In terms of recommended arts-going experiences, it does not get much better than this. Not to mention the timely, considering the national discussion of gender identity. Missing this production would be a real loss for beholders of theatrical beauty.