Alex is determined to get Jake, her four-year-old son, into a top kindergarten, and while Greg, her good-natured husband, supports the goal, he’s also trying to temper Alex’s increasingly obsessive approach to the application process. One concern is Jake’s love of princesses and all things girly, but preschool teacher Judy, who knows Jake well and has some influence in the kindergarten world, advises the family that in this day and age, their son’s proclivity for “gender variant play” is likely to be seen as a plus rather than a problem.
Daniel Pearle’s A Kid Like Jake is getting its regional premiere as Benchmark Theatre’s opener for the fledgling company’s second season; this is also Benchmark’s first production in its new home, the Lakewood venue it’s sharing with the Edge Theater. At first I wasn’t quite sure how to take this production. The last play I saw about affluent parents who’d do anything to get their kid into a top kindergarten was Eric Coble’s Bright Ideas, at the Avenue Theater in 2015, a hilarious parody of Macbeth in which a couple murders the mother whose name is one step above theirs on the list. The actor playing the doomed mother, who died with her face smothered in poisoned green pesto, was Benchmark co-founder Haley Johnson. I also wasn’t inclined to see a story about a boy who wanted to be Cinderella as particularly troubling; my grandsons happily swing from trees, make swords out of branches, and occasionally decorate their nails with polish or parade around in my white high heels.
A Kid Like Jake is entirely serious, however. And just as you’re wondering why you should empathize with this neurotic woman or be concerned about where a four-year-old goes to kindergarten, the play begins to reveal a powerful undertow. Alex becomes pregnant, and in her reaction — and what we learn of her relationship with her own mother — we come more and more to understand her frantic behavior. It also becomes clear that Jake’s love for all things feminine is much more character-defining than my grandsons’ lighthearted play; it isn’t easy for a four-year-old who’s trying to figure out who he is to understand the differences between himself and his peers. Between his mother’s controlling rigidity and his classmates’ teasing, Jake — whom we never see — becomes agitated, sulky and distressed.
Meanwhile, the evident cracks between Jake’s parents begin to widen. They’re liberal, educated people who purport to see nothing wrong with their son’s behavior: Greg defends and spoils Jake; Alex shares Cinderella movies with him. But as they contemplate his venture into the wider world, they become afraid. They see a difference between dressing as Cinderella at home and knocking on doors dressed as Snow White on Halloween. And eventually their own deep-seated prejudices surface.
The theme of motherhood itself underlies the script: the profound and conflicted emotions mothers feel toward their children, the power of motherhood to both nurture and destroy. Those archetypes from the Grimm Brothers’ Cinderella are evoked: the ethereally good birth mother, the supernaturally wicked stepmother.
All the performances are strong. Adrian Egolf irritates — as she should — during Alex’s early scenes before miraculously drawing in the audience to feel the full effect of her confusion and pain. An appealing Antonio Amadeo communicates both Greg’s warmth and his weaknesses. Madison McKenzie Scott is charming in the small role of Nurse; Martha Harmon Pardee’s Judy starts off formal and buttoned-down, ultimately cracking to reveal deeply held convictions.
I have one quarrel with director Warren Sherrill’s otherwise excellent production. The set has to serve as many separate places — an apartment, Judy’s office, a hospital — so it needs to be neutral, but it’s almost too neutral: boxy stools, walls made of box shapes of various sizes and configurations, everything white except for an occasional pink or blue wash of light. Against this, the actors, dressed in blues and grays, almost seem to vanish, and Greg’s brightly striped socks are actually a relief.
With this thought-provoking and well-executed show, Benchmark has revealed itself as a company to be watched, and a welcome addition to the Denver theater community.
A Kid Like Jake, presented by Benchmark Theatre through March 24, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, benchmarktheatre.com.