A grieving father’s attempt to connect with his deceased elementary-school-age son leads him on an unexpected journey towards healing in Jennifer Maisel’s transformative family drama @thespeedofJake, the superbly directed/acted latest World Premiere from Jon Lawrence Rivera and Playwrights’ Arena.

JakePress4 Clark (Ryun Yu) and Emily (Elizabeth Pan) are your average everyday gung-ho soccer parents when first we observe them cheering on their 10-year-old son Jake and his team of little kickers to victory.

Cut to several years later and a child’s messy bedroom, seemingly untouched since the accident which robbed a grieving father and his now estranged wife of their pride and joy, and in Clark’s case, of his reason for living, or at least for leaving the cold comfort of Jake’s cluttered room.

Not only is Clark immobilized and his marriage to Emily over, he finds it close to impossible to forgive his lesbian sister Sam (Celeste Den) for having moved on past the loss of her nephew—and for still having two young daughters of her own.

Then comes a chance occurrence that shakes Clark to the core, an email from his late mother that must surely be some accidentally generated spam but gets a bereaved father to thinking “What if?”

What if the energy, the life force, the soul that was Jake is still out there in the universe, and what if Clark could make contact through the latest technology and his own software design gifts?

Not surprisingly, Clark gets little backing either from Emily (who has some rather startling news to impart) or from Sam, though he does get moral support from a pair of unlikely sources.

JakePress2 The first is his comely neighbor Renee (Renee Threatte), currently earning extra bucks in the world’s oldest profession, or so Clark learns when he hires her services via craigslist. The second is Richard (David Carey Foster), the new man in Emily’s life and the father of her unborn child.

I’ll leave it up to you to discover whether @thespeedofJake takes a sci-fi turn into the supernatural or ends up simply about coming to terms.

JakePress3 Either way, what makes Maisel’s play work (arguably less well than but still in the same vein as David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole) is its illuminating look at the trajectories parents, spouses, family, and friends take along Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages Of Grief, particularly Clark’s rocky path stuck somewhere between anger and bargaining. (If he can come up with the right software, can he get Jake to contact him, even if for one last time?)

Following the misfire that was Circus Ugly, @thespeedofJake represents a welcome return to form by Playwrights’ Arena, whose artistic director Rivera helms it with the passion, imagination, and nuance that have won him multiple Best Director Scenies (and one as Director Of The Year).

As for its ensemble of five, the term “dream team” says it best, and not simply because they are each and every one outstanding, but because they represent the kind of rainbow-colored casting that too often still remains an unfulfilled dream among actors of color.

“Traditional wisdom” (i.e. unimaginative, far too common, and the opposite of wise) would have filled the stage with an all-Caucasian cast because, face it, that’s how far out of the box most productions seem willing to think, and since neither Clark nor Emily nor Sam are specifically Asian nor is Renee specifically African-American, that must mean they’re white, right?

Wrong, which is just one reason why it’s such a treat to see Dramatic Performance Of The Year Scenie winner Yu as Clark, a role he brings to life with depth, passion, and in-the-moment electricity.

JakePress1 Pan gives Emily a pitch-perfect blend of fire and ice, Den commands the stage here every bit as much as she did in her Best Feature Actress turn in South Coast Rep’s Trudy And Max In Love, and Threatte couldn’t make for warmer, more winning Renee.

A “traditionally-cast” Carey does memorable work too as a genuinely nice guy both Emily and Clark are lucky to welcome into their lives, with an always visible Kate Lee providing an exquisitely played live cello soundtrack to Howard Ho’s evocative original music.

JakePress5 Scenic designer John Iacovelli lets us be flies on the wall throughout @thespeedofJake’s intermissionless ninety minutes, aided by the intimacy of one of Atwater Village Theatre’s two smaller spaces, a design featuring an awesome second scene reveal. Tom Ontiveros’s projections take us out of Jake’s room and onto soccer fields and inside computer software. Mylette Nora’s costumes capture each character’s style choices, with special snaps for Emily’s gradually “growing” wardrobe. Justin Huen lights all of the above to subtle perfection, with sound designer Ho adding just-right effects including some surround-sound kids’ soccer.

@thespeedofJake is produced by Joann Paolantonio. Casting is by Raul Clayton Staggs. Veronica Vasquez is stage manager and Shoshana Koff is assistant stage manager.

Like Velina Hasu Houston’s Cinnamon Girl, Boni B. Alvarez’s Dallas Non Stop, Nick Salamone’s Euripides’ Helen, and Michael Premsrirat’s The Girl Most Likely To, Playwrights’ Arena’s latest World Premiere fulfills the company’s mission of “discovering, nurturing and producing bold new works for the stage written exclusively by Los Angeles playwrights” … and then some.

It is L.A. intimate theater at its life-affirming best.

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Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
November 23, 2105
Photos: Blake Boyd

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