Niles West Theatre’s “A Kid Like Jake” Challenges the Audience to Simply Listen

By Anna Lusson, Staff Writer

When entering the Blackbox theatre for Niles West’s first show of the year, “A Kid Like Jake” you are met with a dark room except for a colorfully lit, New York City apartment display laid out in front of you. The fridge is covered in magnets and children’s drawings, toys are spread out across the floor and shelves, coats and bags are hung up by the door, paintings cover the walls, and the windows display bushes from outside. You are overcome by a cozy feeling, one that can only be described as walking into your childhood home. Being greeted by this beautiful scene upon walking into the play immediately sweeps you into an entirely new world and transports you from the hallways of your high school into the world of an average family living in New York City.

The play opens with an average family living in New York City that is seemingly picturesque. The show stars parents Alex and Greg, played by seniors Ellie Evens and Henry Fleck, who are trying to enroll their child, Jake, into an elite private school with the help of their close friend and Jake’s preschool administrator, Judy, played by senior Emily Lim. Given the task of writing an essay on why Jake should be offered a spot in the school, Alex and Greg are forced to bring to light more about their kid than they were before. Jake likes to watch Disney princess movies, play with dolls, and is overall interested in things that society would label as “girly.” As all this is going on, Alex finds out she is pregnant with her second child and has to visit her nurse, played by senior Gene Berg, for both her health needs and Jake’s.

Playing characters going through such intense emotions is no doubt a big task, and I was blown away by how natural the actors were and how real their emotions came across from the stage.

“One of the things we did a lot was like trying to get out of our own heads of like – actually you have to think less in order to act honestly and not try so hard,” Rosenfeld said about working with the cast.

Through the use of lighting and props, the apartment set seamlessly transitions into a meeting room, waiting room, restaurant, and doctor’s office throughout the play. Without any changes to the backdrop, you could tell right away where the characters were.  I thought this was a very cool way of taking the audience along these characters’ journeys without having to change the settings.

Senior Eva Schultz, the scenic designer, talks about the month-long process it takes to create such an in-depth set. “In early June I met with Mr. Johnson, scenic supervisor, and Mr. Rose, director, and brought with me two initial sketches: one based off of an actual apartment layout and the other on a theatrical layout. From there I combined the ground plan of one with the exterior layout of the other,” Schultz said. “We built the entire set, whether that be using old platforms or making new ones once we ran out of supplies,”

Rosenfeld picked this play out 3 years ago for a final graduate school assignment. He’s spent lots of time researching the kinds of themes brought up in this play, and encourages the audience to listen. “I think for me the message of the play is really just to, like, listen, especially to your children because they’re listening to you and they’re absorbing everything that parents say,” Rosenfeld said. This play is important to him because he not only saw pieces of himself in, Jake but also wanted to shed a light on the gender diversity that exists within the Niles West Theatre department. “When I start directing a play, I try to think about – why are we doing this play here, as in like geographically at Niles West, in Chicago. And then why are we also doing this play now, this time period, in the world that we’re living in today. And then also right now, especially with the overturn of Roe v. Wade this summer, which I had no idea was coming when I even announced the play at the end of the year. The topics of miscarriage became really central,” Rosenfeld said.

What I thought was super unique about this play is that Jake is never shown. Instead, the audience is invited to create their own perception of Jake solely based on the conversations the adults in his life are having. Through these conversations, you are exposed to themes like gender expression, miscarriage, and navigating raising a child while allowing them to explore who they are as a person.

One line that stood out to me was said by the character Judy, played by senior Emily Lim. “We don’t always have to know the answers. As long as we keep listening,” Lim said. This line, to me, encompassed the entire message of the play. I think it shows that humans don’t have to always have everything figured out, and Alex and Greg certainly didn’t have everything figured out when it came to Jake and parenting a kid who’s going through what Jake goes through. I think this quote shows that a simple solution to that is to listen to people when they are trying to tell you something. Throughout the play, Jake displays many signs of his gender identity but his parents were too afraid of what others would think of him to listen.

While this play is completely up to viewer interpretation, the director plants some seeds in the audience’s head through the “Director’s Note” in the program.

“How have we judged those we love? How have we put them into boxes or forced them into a binary? How have we superimposed a label on them for our comfort or understanding? How has this hurt them? How has it hurt us? I encourage you to sit with any discomforts you may experience while you are in this space with us,” director Sam Rosenfeld said.

Niles West Theatre started its season of performances with a bang and still has many more to come. The first performance of the year is always Niles West Theatre’s annual Thespian show. A Thespian, for those who don’t know, is a person in theatre that has 100 hours or more of theatre service. This includes the entire cast and crew for “A Kid Like Jake”.

“We don’t always have to know the answers. As long as we keep listening,” Judy said. This quote closes the Director’s Note for “A Kid Like Jake” in which the audience is encouraged to “sit with any discomforts you may experience while you are in this space.”

Evelyn Herbert contributed to this story.