On paper it may have seemed that Deep Dish Theater Company was taking a shot-in-the-dark by producing a 28-year-old’s very first play, but if it was good enough for Lincoln Center, just over a year ago, it would certainly be good enough for a 70-seat theater at a mall in Chapel Hill (no offense intended, Deep Dish). Daniel Pearle, a Harvard graduate, wrote A Kid Like Jake as his graduate thesis at the New School for Drama and won the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award that included a $50,000 cash prize plus $100K towards production of the play. Wow! I got a limp, sweaty handshake from my adviser when I completed my thesis.

It was one of those nights that I was in no mood for what I stereotyped as some kid’s attempt to proselytize his immature concepts of relationships, raising children, and the absurdities of school admissions for children barely out of diapers. Boy was I wrong. Within minutes I realized that I was in the presence of a playwright with a perfect-pitch sense of how real people react and speak to each other, plus superb actors that, pardon the cliché, inhabited their parts.

We meet Alex (Meredith Sause) and Gregg (Jim Moscater), a thirtysomething yuppie couple (are these 80s terms obsolete?) living the relatively good life in New York City. When Alex speaks, she, at first, has that “I’m an entitled rich girl” sound that makes you want to shake her conscience awake. Thank goodness it evolves over the course of the play. She and her psychiatrist husband, Greg, are discussing the application process for their son Jake – to Kindergarten! There are two themes running through this play that forty years ago would have, respectively, seemed utterly ridiculous for one and completely unimaginable for the other. The competitiveness and angst, plus cost, of getting your child into the “best” elementary school was once culled for comic effect, but it’s a deadly serious business now. The concept of gender confusion/disparity was disturbing enough for most in the dark ages of the 20th century, but the thought that a four-year-old can have these feelings is as foreign as the surface of Mars. So we have here the travails of this couple navigating, with a little help from a “friend,” the treacherous waters of elite private elementary school admissions for their son Jake, who is increasingly demonstrating “gender-variant” behavior.

The third player in this drama is Judy (Rasool Jahan), the advisor and admissions counselor in Jake’s pre-K program who guides the anxious couple on this perilous journey. Like the others, she is so entrenched in this precarious reality that it is hard to tell whether she really has the “best interest of the child” in mind, or she is just a mindless feeder to a system gone amuck. Jahan is a tremendous talent who at first pulls you in as well-meaning and sincere, but grows ominous and chilly as she spouts increasingly odd proclamations on what Jake’s behavior might “mean.” Her suggestion that Jake’s enjoyment of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid might be used to enhance his diversity in the essays starts off another major conflict in the play.

Sause and Moscater were, well, perfectly human in their portrayals of this couple battling for their son – and one thing is for sure: neither knows the answer. This could have easily fallen into an abyss of overacting, but it felt like I was listening in on real life. Their major fight, in the penultimate scene, was so realistic and natural that it had veterans of these real-life encounters squirming. The blame starts. While Greg accuses his wife of buying too many Disney “princess” DVDs, she retaliates by asking him when he ever threw a baseball with Jake.

This is no laughing matter, but Pearle judiciously employs some great comical lines to break the tension and further humanize the characters. The mention of public schools or McDonalds elicited howls of disgust and derision. There are many nuanced topics touched on and then withdrawn quickly from the burner: hypocrisy of some liberals, women leaving careers to take care of children, white flight to suburbs for “better” schools, even reparative therapy to “cure” Jake.

This is a play which proves that an excellent script and great acting is all you need:

I’d watch them perform it in an empty room. However, the minimalist sets (Jenni Mann Becker, scenic desitner) and lighting (Liz Droessler, lighting designer) did add another dimension to the experience. The backdrop (Matthew S. Gaynor, graphic designer) was a colorful, quasi-impressionistic cityscape that didn’t necessarily identify itself as New York – which is where it’s actually set. The sets primarily alternated between the couple’s simple living room and Judy’s office at Jake’s current school. The set changes (about eight of them) were done quickly and efficiently by stagehands on a darkened set while well-chosen music played. While there is a costume designer (Pamela Bond), the dress was unremarkable everyday clothing.

In case the reader is wondering, Jake is never seen, except for a wonderful scene where Alex imagines her son as female. Jess Jones, who also doubles in a small part as a Nurse, sensitively plays the gender-realized Jake.

Directed by Tony Lea in a way that simply allows a well-written story to be told by a superb ensemble, A Kid Like Jake is a magnificent study of people grappling with things they can’t fully understand and probably have no control over. There is no resolution, just more questions as the final scene balances the silly with the profound. We are just at the starting gate of the 2014-15 arts season, but A Kid Like Jake, has already positioned itself at the top of the list for Best Play of the Year.

A Kid Like Jake continues through Saturday, September 20. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.