Parents Grapple With Their Child’s Gender Identity In ‘A Kid Like Jake’

As of last weekend, under the radar West Palm Beach theatre group Bob Carter’s Actor’s Workshop and Repertory Company is officially making its post-pandemic return with a compelling production of A Kid Like Jake, a thought-provoking play by Daniel Pearle that first premiered in 2013 and has only become more relevant as issues surrounding gender identity have found a place at our cultural forefront.

Contrary to what you might initially expect, though, the Jake of the title is not among this play’s main characters, and is, in fact, entirely unseen. Instead, the show focuses on his high-strung mother Alex and more laid-back father Greg. At first it seems as if it is primarily about the well-off New York couple’s struggle to get their four year old son Jake into a suitably prestigious private kindergarten program, a matter that both Alex and the script itself seem to be taking far too seriously. 

Photo credits: Amy Pasquantonio

But when Judy, Jake’s preschool principal, suggests to Alex that Jake’s “gender-variant play’ may be worth mentioning on the applications for these competitive programs, the show begins to show its true stakes. Though the amount of time ultimately devoted to the banalities of the kindergarten rat race versus this more interesting subject, make A Kid Like Jake feel somewhat structurally uneven and a bit slow to grab the attention. It ultimately reveals itself to be an insightful examination of how even the most progressive and well-meaning parents may struggle to cope with having a child who does not adhere to the usual boy-girl binary.  Critically, neither parent is wholly at ease with or wholly opposed to the fact that Jake has been playing princesses in games of schoolyard make-believe and prefers his Cinderella figurine to more traditionally “masculine” toys, or to what traits like these suggest about his future gender identity or sexual orientation. However, in a fascinating break with usual gender stereotypes in and of itself, it’s the softer-hearted Greg who seems to be more open to Jake’s differences than the daringly complex Alex, whose sharp and shrewd version of maternal instincts are clearly fueled by her genuine love for her son but can be off-putting to the play’s other characters, her husband chief among them. 

Photo credits: Amy Pasquantonio

Alex’s worries that paying undue attention to Jake’s proclivities may result in him being “boxed in” to an aberrant identity when he could well be going through a passing phase are also understandable ones, though what makes the script so intriguing is that it’s hard to pinpoint to what extent this anxiety may be only a cover story of sorts for Alex’s denial that Jake’s flights of fancy are more than just signs of an active imagination. The gradual shading in of backstory about Alex, Greg, and their history as a couple also work to create a portrait of two well-rounded characters and the complex relationship between them, which is both intensely loving and deeply flawed. As the play progresses, their heated debates only grow more intense as the signs that Jake may not see himself as a boy also seem to be intensifying, and signs begin to emerge that Jake’s struggles to conceal his true self may be contributing to emotional and behavior problems that threaten Alex’s precious plans for his education. Thus, while the intelligent script does have a few touches of humor sprinkled throughout, what I remember more vividly than any laugh lines are several cutting “gasp” lines, most of them spat from Alex to Greg or vice versa, but occasionally aimed at Judy once she gets in the couple’s crossfire. The fact that Alex is pregnant again after a past miscarriage adds even more texture and nuance to the proceedings, and eventually leads to some of the show’s most emotionally wrenching moments. 

Photo credits: Amy Pasquantonio

Overall, lead performers Rachel Andes and Flint Keller adeptly carry the show through its complicated terrain as Alex and Greg, and have enough chemistry and charisma to make for a believable and likable couple. The cast also includes Cathi Spiel as the capable and compassionate Judy, and Ashley Cadena, who appears first as a cheerful nurse and later as a mysterious character who plays a critical role in the play’s conclusion. That cathartic conclusion, which also involves the sole break from conventional “reality” in the otherwise naturalistic script, is another of the play’s highlights, and one that I found surprisingly moving in its suggestion of a hopeful resolution for Jake himself as well as an increase in acceptance for his concerned parents. 

Photo credits: Amy Pasquantonio

If there’s anything else in the script—or choice of script— to criticize, it may be that the play centers the perspective of these befuddled parents rather than that of trans characters themselves. But this fact also likely makes the play more accessible to a majority non-trans audience that a more obviously trans-centric script might alienate, providing a meaningful opportunity for them to engage with the challenging ideas that A Kid Like Jake explores. You have only one more weekend to catch this production at Actor’s Rep yourself, so make sure not to let the chance pass you by!

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