This is the question at the heart of the Globe Theatre’s production of Jake and the Kid. Adapted by Conni Massing from W.O. Mitchell’s series of radio plays and stories, Jake is a whopping crowd pleaser of a play with enjoyable performances and a big ending that undoubtedly gave the technical crew a whole lot of headaches along the way (but it pays off handsomely, if the audience’s applause was anything to go by).
The play is primarily based on W.O. Mitchell’s short story “The Day Jake Made Her Rain,” but Massing fills out the piece with material from several other stories. The result is an episodic structure that faithfully reflects the way that Mitchell wrote his linked stories, with setpieces and characters that surface from the main narrative and fall away again. If you’ve read Mitchell’s novels or remember the 300 or so radio plays from the 1950s, then it can be fun to see the traces of other stories embedded in Massing’s adaptation.
The narrative that Massing creates from all the material is the slow coming-to-maturity of The Kid (Jeremy Hilsendager) as he sheds his naïvete and begins to guess that adulthood is a dark and complicated place where half-truths hide hard realities. With his father at war in Europe, The Kid finds a best friend and father figure in Jake Trumper, a hired hand who feeds him endless tall tales about the history of Crocus. The Kid hangs on Jake’s every word, but when Jake declares that he can build a rain making machine, he may have gone a step too far.
The Kid’s world is initially a simple place – the earth beneath him and the sky above, his mother at home and his father at war, Mrs. Henchbaw with her history books and Jake with his tall tales – but as the the light comedy of the first act turns to genuine tension in the second, The Kid’s faith begins to waver. Crocus is suffering a drought, crops are failing, and the war seems no closer to ending – why doesn’t Jake build his machine? If he has the power to save Crocus, why doesn’t he just do it? The Kid’s mounting confusion produces some of the play’s most affecting moments.
The cast brings a great level of energy and physicality to the play. Hilsendager portrays The Kid with a gee-whiz charm and the anarchic enthusiasm of a young boy. Certain notes, such as his unrequited love for Molly, are played extremely well. There’s another layer to The Kid as budding writer with a flair for metaphor. That didn’t really work for me, but I suspect this issue lies more with Massing’s script than Hilsendager and director Stirling’s interpretation.
As Jake Trumper, Jerry Franken has an absolutely effortless charisma. You want to like this guy and believe every word he says. Even though we see much of the action through the eyes of The Kid, it is Jake that fills in the dark details that his young friend can’t quite grasp, and Franken pulls it off with little more than the tone of his voice and the set of his shoulders.
The rest of the cast does a fine job in multiple roles. Tim Koetting, who plays Jake Trumper’s frenemy Gate, has a great rapport with Franken. Duncan Fisher (whom I first saw in The Story of Mr. Wright) brings a lot of charm to the character of Godfrey, the visiting academic with a taxonomy of liars. Shannon Jardine is wonderful as The Kid’s mother. And Kaitlyn Semple pulls off the difficult job of creating a sympathetic character of out of the starchy Miss Henchbaw.
There are a few bumps along this ride. The pacing of the first act felt rushed and not in keeping with the slower tempo of rural prairie town life. Jokes that should have landed easily didn’t always connect with the audience. Rarely for a Globe production, the simplicity of the set – a platform ringed with wooden slats to suggest a sidewalk and a field – did not always serve the play well. The absence of visual cues made it hard to tell where some of the scenes were meant to take place, which had the consequence of rendering some of the relationships between characters unclear. It’s probably the main reason that the second act was more successful than the first.
One of the great pleasures in the play is Jake’s rain machine, a ridiculous device that resembles a cross between a still and a popcorn cart. It’s Jake Trumper’s instrument, and he ends up playing the entire town on its unlikely gears.
Jake and The Kid runs until May 15th. For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Globe Theatre online.