A blizzardy Sunday afternoon is a tough time to get pumped for traveling via public transportation to a play opening. This is the situation in which I found myself last weekend en route to About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “A Kid Like Jake” at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Despite six years of reviewing Windy City productions for EDGE Media Network, somehow I’d never been exposed to the work of About Face. The promise of novelty was enough to get me to bundle up, trudge outside and hope for the best.
My goodness. “A Kid Like Jake” is worth braving the elements and then some. And now that I’ve popped my About Face cherry, I can’t wait to see what the company has in store next.
About Face is committed to an ambitious mission: “to create exceptional, innovative and adventurous plays to advance the national dialogue on gender and sexual identity, and to challenge and entertain audiences in Chicago, across the country and around the world.” For many artistic companies, the tension between fomenting sociopolitical change and developing quality material often leads to compromise at one end of the spectrum. The result is often preachy but dull, or energetic but vacuous.
The About Face team knew what it was doing when it selected “A Kid Like Jake,” playwright Daniel Pearle’s “contemporary dramedy about parenting, gender and fitting in (per press materials).” Directed with a patient, even hand by Keira Fromm, “Jake” is a painfully riveting experience in which there are no villains. Everyone means well and yet there’s plenty of hurt to go around. It’s transfixing reality brought to life by a cast that understands the gravity of the material and its goal.
What’s so interesting about the script — involving a never seen but omnipresent four-year-old Jake, a precocious boy with a passion for the Disney Princesses and skirts – is its intended audience. Pearle appears to be speaking to the presumably converted: the well-heeled, moneyed, liberal arts educated parents who believe they’ve opened all vistas to their precious ones. There is nothing he or she can’t study, experiment with or become — with no judgment. Right?
Well maybe. Harried stay-at-home mom Alex (Katherine Keberlein) gave up a meandering law career to be young Jake’s everything. As Alex and her psychologist husband Greg (Michael Aaron Lindner) struggle to expand their family, Alex’s commitment turns into an obsession with getting Jake into one of Manhattan’s top, competitive kindergarten programs.
On the advice of family friend and education expert Judy (Cindy Gold), Alex seeks to highlight that what makes Jake special. But how comfortable is she really with the idea that her intelligent, emotional son is showing early signs of gender identity anxiety? Is Alex enlightened enough to answer the question, “Why can’t a boy be a princess?” without experiencing identity threats of her own?
Keberlein, who wowed audiences including this critic, in Goodman Theatre’s recent “Smokefall,” knows from playing conflicted, guilt-ridden, stressed mothers. She is a master at using her face to add unspoken torment to already emotional dialogue. While her Alex frequently comes off as spoiled and unlikeable, it’s a testament to Keberlein’s work in the last scene that the audience is left with the impression that we, like she with Jake, may have never understood at all.
Lindner plays Greg as a patient, loving semi-doormat on the surface. But once again, all is not as it seems. Greg is more than capable of breaking a damaging silence and reversing Alex’s spin when needed. Linder weaves this nuance with fluidity. He never sacrifices the character’s steadiness even as he lets Alex know with certainty that they have collectively taken a wrong turn.
Gold rounds out the big three of “A Kid Like Jake,” as Judy, a compassionate child advocate and family friend who eventually bears the brunt of Alex’s unraveling. The role could easily function as a supporting character with not much story of her own. However owing to Gold’s terrific, measured delivery, we receive intriguing hints into Judy’s particular connection with the child. Remarkable work.
At one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, the production is a long stretch without a break. But to experience the voyeuristic work of family implosion is to lose oneself completely in its emotional, uncertain denouement. The work offers no easy answers. Because there aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions to raising a happy, healthy human being in the 21st Century. Why can’t a boy be princess indeed?