Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Food for thought at Matrix

It's not often that I react so negatively towards a character in a play, but Kaitlyn Valor-Bourque's performance in "A Kid Like Jake" at Detroit's Matrix Theatre had that serious of an impact on me. And not because it was an awful performance this past Saturday night; in fact, it was just the opposite.

In Daniel Pearle's drama, Valor-Bourque plays Alex, the mother of a highly intelligent 4-year-old boy who'd rather dress up as Snow White for Halloween and obsess over Cinderella than toss a ball or play with other boys. And while Alex is fine with that in the confines of her home, she's faced with making a tough decision: Should she or should she not mention her son's uniqueness in the applications she's preparing to get her son into one of Manhattan's uber-competitive kindergarten programs?

She should, says Jake's pre-school teacher, Judy (played by Krystle Futrell) - a friend and veteran of the admissions process - as his "gender-variant play" would give him an extra point in the diversity column. But Alex is unconvinced; why put a target on her son's back before he's even admitted into one of the schools? And lurking beneath the surface is Alex's hope that Jake's behavior might be nothing more than a "phase" he's going through; that over time, he might change into what society expects of little boys.

Jake's dad, however, is more concerned about his wife's increasing fixation on the admissions process than he is about his boy's behavior. A therapist, Greg (Patrick Hanley) seems to accept the fact that his son could turn out to be gay (or not) or transgender (or not). It doesn't matter; he'd love him anyway. "He's not exactly Johnny Basketball," he acknowledges about his son.

For that matter, neither is Greg, which - in the heat of an argument - Alex nastily points out. And as the friction between the two rapidly escalates - and Alex challenges Judy's sincerity in obtaining the best placement possible for Jake - reports begin to trickle in: Jake is increasingly acting out, and it's looking very unlikely that the tonier schools will accept him.

And the thought that Jake may have to attend - ick! - public school is something Alex won't accept!

Pearle's script smashes together a number of hot-topic issues, not all of which generate much sympathy from the audience. (In my day, kids just showed up at the kindergarten nearest their house; there were no hoops to jump through, no snooty people making judgments about you. And the average middle-class theatergoer will likely find amusing the dog-eat-dog ferocity at which the upper classes will fight to keep their spoiled kids from mingling with our kids in kindergarten.)

But class isn't the only issue at stake here. How does one parent a child like Jake, Pearle asks. What's best for him? Is it better to let him "be himself" (and maybe outgrow his girl-like tendencies)? Or should he be seen by a specialist who works with children like Jake?

It's a tough call, to be sure. And in this case, Alex is dead set against sending Jake to see a specialist. (In her mind, it's acknowledging there is a problem that needs fixing instead of helping Jake and the family explore the range of full possibilities.) So instead, she becomes a Mama Bear on steroids, not seeing that the protection she's trying to provide her cub is instead causing more problems - potentially destroying not only her friendship with Judy and her marriage to Greg, but Jake's health and well-being, as well.

So why did Valor-Bourque's performance dig so deeply into my psyche, you might be wondering? Because I - like a lot of little boys - was Jake in my early years. At school, I was the perpetually skinny, uncoordinated and sensitive kid that was always the last to be picked for anything athletic, was one of the few kids not involved in little league, and was far more artistically inclined than anything else - and, oh, guess what? I turned out to be gay.

What separates my story from Jake's, however, is my mother. Yes, she tried to protect me. (She even duked it out with a fifth-grade teacher who seemed to delight in harassing me and several other kids; he was ultimately fired.) But she also understood that pretty much every kid gets teased and bullied at some point - that's human nature, which many people won't admit - and so she gave me the tools and skills to deal with it. And she made sure I knew I was loved.

As such, we never had the Sturm und Drang that Jake was living with, and so I was free to be me (and happily so) - and I think I turned out just fine.

Jake, however, may not. (There's no resolution to the play, so we don't know for sure.) With a mother hell-bent to go to war and destroy everything in her path, what signal is sent to her son who instinctively knows he's different? Will he believe he's a disappointment to his mother and behave accordingly? Will he loathe who he thinks he is? Will he find solace in negative behavior as he grows older?

As the script shows, actions have consequences - and Valor-Bourque's rigid and powerful portrayal helps prove that even the best of intentions often have unintended (and negative) results. (One also has to ask: Was Alex more concerned about what people would think of her than what they'd think of Jake?)

And so that's why I reacted so strongly against Alex (and not Valor-Bourque, who took the written words and breathed a fiery life into them). My sympathies were with Jake, who was simply being himself and facing a rocky road ahead of him - and as such, I wanted to shake some sense into her because of the damage she was inflicting upon her son, her family and her friends. (Luckily, the fine folks at Matrix didn't have to restrain me.)

The bottom line is this: It's rare for a show to have that much of an impact on me - and for all the right reasons. With powerful acting, insightful direction by David Wolber, and a thought-provoking script, "A Kid Like Jake" is a fine opening to Matrix Theatre's 25th anniversary season. If I have a quibble, though, it's with the scene changes during which I wasn't always sure what was going on. (Although I like thematic scene changes, these may have been too artsy for me.) So check it out and let me know what you think...

For performance dates and times, CLICK HERE!

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