In A Kid Like Jake, which opened this weekend in its west coast premiere at IAMA Theatre Company in Los Angeles, we never actually meet the titular character. Instead, playwright Daniel Pearle has written a smart and thoughtful exploration of parenthood in the modern age, and how to navigate raising a child who is struggling with their gender identity.
Alex (Sarah Utterback) is a former lawyer turned stay-at-home mom with a new obsession—getting her son into a private kindergarten in New York. The process is competitive, but so is she. Convinced her child is precocious beyond his years, she works vocabulary quizzes into everyday conversation and picks up books on raising gifted children. Her husband, Greg (Tim Peper) is a therapist and the breadwinner of the family. While Alex is quite strict, he does not see the harm in taking his child to McDonalds every now and then and would be perfectly satisfied sending him to public school. And, he is concerned about the timing of the cutthroat kindergarten admissions cycle—Alex is pregnant, and after a miscarriage the previous year, any undue stress could be dangerous.
When Alex consults Judy (Sharon Lawrence), Jake’s pre-school teacher from the previous year who has become a trusted friend, she is surprised by her advice. Judy feels strongly that mentioning Jake’s “gender expansive play” in their applications will give them a leg up with progressive schools eager for diversity. Alex is taken aback—yes, her son is obsessed with Cinderella and prefers princesses to trucks, but isn’t it just a phase? Is it potentially harmful to “label” Jake too early? As months pass and Jake’s increasingly erratic behavior threatens his kindergarten prospects, Alex and Greg must decide if and how they want to address their son’s potential gender dysphoria, all while trying to navigate the intricacies of their marriage and pregnancy.
Directed by Jennifer Chambers, the action unfolds on an impressively detailed set (DeAnne Millais) full of children’s toys and drawings. The play first premiered Off-Broadway in 2013, and Pearle adapted it into a film starring Claire Danes and Jim Parsons in 2017. This production includes new rewrites, and has the benefit of an audience more well-versed in transgender issues and experiences than society generally was six years ago. Interestingly, the word “transgender” is hardly spoken in the play, instead lingering as subtext as the characters try to find gentle ways to describe Jake’s “unique” personality.
Alex is at times a difficult character to root for—she is unwaveringly stubborn, and sometimes her approach to parenting is easy to disagree with. Meanwhile, Greg gets to be almost unrealistically easygoing and empathetic. A heated eleventh hour confrontation between them is the highlight of the play and the closest the text comes to finding some balance between them, but the story would benefit from another moment or two where Alex gets to be vulnerable. A few more scenes where she gets to voice the anxieties informing her frustrating behavior would go a long way in humanizing her, and Greg could benefit from a couple of character flaws so that he is not the voice of reason in every scene. But Utterback and Peper are making the most of the material they have been given, and their bickering is always layered and realistic, shining a light on the stress parenthood brings to relationships.
Lawrence shines in her scenes as the liberal Judy, bringing smart and compassionate wisdom to Jake’s situation. When we finally learn an interesting tidbit about her own backstory, it only enhances the character, adding subtext to everything that came before. Rounding out the cast is a young nurse (Olivia Liang) who counsels Alex at a prenatal doctor’s appointment.
For the most part, the structure works well and Pearle’s writing is often quite subtle, organically revealing information in a way that never feels forced. One dream sequence towards the end of the play does not entirely work, perhaps because it is such a stylistic departure from the rest of the piece and its ultimate intention is unclear. While the scenes are enjoyable to watch, thanks to smart dialogue and keen performances, by the end you wonder if this series of conversations actually led anywhere. All of the issues raised are compelling and important ones, but without a clear conclusion the character arcs feel incomplete and a bit unsatisfying.
A Kid Like Jake runs at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse through November 3rd. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased here.