When one has a binary-track mindset, things are easy: black or white, right or wrong, in or out. Gender roles are also easy to assign: You either fit in as a man or a woman, a girl or a boy, or you don’t.
But things have changed since the days of our grandparents, with TV shows like “Transparent” and the very public transformation of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner.
IAMA Theatre Company’s production of “A Kid Like Jake” is a powerful and unsettling drama about the decisions parents must make in today’s world of non-binary values.
This guest production playing at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse is a West Coast premiere of Daniel Pearle’s play, a revision of his 2013 stage version, which premiered at the LCT3/Lincoln Center Theatre in New York where it was a New York Times Critic Pick. Pearle adapted his play into a feature-length film with Clare Danes, Jim Parson and Octavia Spencer that premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2018. In that version, viewers see Jake. In the version at the Carrie Hamilton, audience members only hear what three adults say about him.
In the play’s press notes, Pearle points out that society has changed considerably. In fact, Jenner’s public metamorphosis brought about discussions that changed our language. The play came out before terms like “gender expansiveness” was “part of our cultural lexicon,” Pearle notes.
The Hamilton stage is designed as a living room. Drawings decorate some of the space, as do colorful letters spelling out the months. Oversized LEGO bricks and other playthings are neatly stored in stackable plastic bins. Jake’s mother, Alex (Sarah Utterback), is a stay-at-home mom. When her husband, Greg (Tim Peper), comes home, her hair is already twisted into a messy bun on the top of her head.
Alex is ready to prepare her child for gifted testing. “The dancer in the family” while his brother was “the brains,” Alex doesn’t want to label her son, but she also doesn’t want to miss any opportunities. While her therapist husband wants to complain about a patient’s stalling tactics, she can’t wait to tell him that their friend and educational adviser at Jake’s pre-school, Judy (Sharon Lawrence), believes Jake is bright and could possibly qualify for a scholarship at a private school.
Greg isn’t “exactly Johnny basketball,” but that doesn’t explain why Jake has an enduring love for Cinderella. Greg and Alex have bought seven different versions of Cinderella on DVD — including the 1997 Rodgers & Hammerstein version featuring Brandi. Judy even notes this: At pre-school Jake has expressed “gender expansiveness” with other kids: In the play his group makes up, Jake was “a princess who didn’t know he was a princess.”
As the play progresses, Jake’s behavior becomes an issue. He makes drawings that seem a bit gory, but Greg believes Jake is simply illustrating the bloody original version of Cinderella. Jake shoves another child. He might have been teased about his choices and there is an issue about hormones and Alex’s concern about private school acceptance that adds to the pressure that these two parents feel.
Director Jennifer Chambers comments in the press notes that while her kids are now 7 and 9, she understands “that beautiful, heartbreaking pain that comes with your kid growing up and getting away from that little bubble you live in together when they are babies.”
The fights between Peper’s Greg and Utterback’s Alex are horrible and heartrending and ever so believable. It helps that we can only imagine how Jake looks and sounds. Chambers’ instincts as director keep the emotion raw, but manageable, giving us space to think by not demonizing either parent or their friend and adviser, Lawrence’s well-meaning Judy.
“A Kid Like Jake” continues until Nov. 3 at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $35. For more information, call (323) 380-8843 or visit iamatheatre.com.