BWW Review: THE CAKE: Two Brides, One Conundrum for North Carolina Baker
Written by Bekah Brunstetter, Directed by Courtney O'Connor; Matt Whiton, Scenic Design; Charles Schoonmaker, Costume Design; Aja Jackson, Lighting Design; Arshan Gailus, Composer & Sound Design; Aliza Kenney, Assistant Director; Ted Hewlett, Intimacy Design; Dialect Coach, Rebecca Schneebaum; Props Artisan and Cake Design, Lauren Corcuera; Diane McLean, Production Stage Manager; Athena-Gwendolyn Baptiste, Assistant Stage Manager
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court handed a narrow victory to a Christian baker from Colorado who refused for religious reasons to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Hailing from a conservative North Carolina background, playwright Bekah Brunstetter is personally familiar with people like Della, the protagonist of The Cake, and ideally positioned to protect her and defend her humanity, while also setting her on a path to self-reflection and change. Although the story may be ripped from the headlines, Brunstetter tells it from the perspectives of a quartet of ordinary, yet multi-faceted characters, each of whom comes with a strong set of beliefs.
Lyric Stage Company's Acting Artistic Director Courtney O'Connor directs a terrific ensemble, with Karen MacDonald (Della) as the cake-topper, Chelsea Diehl (Jen) and Kris Sidberry (Macy) as the brides-to-be, and Fred Sullivan, Jr. (Tim) standing in for the other gender. The Cake is decidedly a female-centric play, but the relationships that each of the women have, or had, with men in their lives informs who they are and how they operate in the world. However, it is fair to say that Tim is the one most negatively impacted by society's expectations for men. Brunstetter only briefly looks at the trap he falls into, but Sullivan convinces us that Tim is torn up by it and looking for a way to heal.
Della is a master cake baker whose definition of success is scoring an invitation to appear on "The Big American Bake-Off," the top-rated baking competition show on television. In the midst of all that excitement, Jen, the daughter of her deceased best friend, returns to Winston, NC, from New York City to plan her wedding, hoping that Della will make her dream wedding cake. Della's enthusiasm for the assignment is short-lived when she learns that Jen's fiancé is actually Macy, a fiancée, unveiling a conflict between their diametrically-opposed beliefs and opening a rift in their lifelong connection. Owing to their different reactions to the snub, Jen and Macy face a challenge that goes to the core of their relationship. When Della tells her husband Tim about the request, he seems to think it's a no-brainer that she'll refuse.
It turns out that the decision is not as simple as that for Della as she begins to consider the other side of the argument, remembers the love she has for Jen, and recalls a time in her youth when she had feelings for another woman. As all of these thoughts and questions roil her, MacDonald conveys each and every one of them, often shifting from one emotion to another in the blink of an eye. Her economy of expression belies the level of difficulty of not only rapidly changing her demeanor, but also doing so convincingly. If you were to spend the entire play watching MacDonald's face and not looking anywhere else on stage, you would know almost everything you need to know about the story. She nails all of her character's comedic moments with perfect timing, and connects on a deep level with each of the other actors.
Sidberry wears Macy's wry expression and prickly attitude naturally. This is a woman who proudly, if wearily, stands up for who she is, as both a woman of color and a lesbian. She is fierce, smart, loyal, loving, and not afraid to let everyone know it. All of that comes through in Sidberry's performance, whether she is speaking or reacting to one of the other actors. Diehl has a tougher assignment to portray Jen's ambivalence, but she does a good job of toggling between the mixed emotions until Jen solidifies her feelings. The actors are a strong pairing when they are fighting, but they need to turn up the temperature on the chemistry in their loving scenes.
Scenic designer Matt Whiton turns the floor of the Lyric Stage into Della's Sweets, complete with café tables, a glass case filled with decorative cakes, linoleum floor, and a swinging door leading to the kitchen. Each of the couples has a small bedroom space on the upper tiers flanking the stage with appropriate lighting effects by designer Aja Jackson. Lauren Corcuera handles cake design and serves as props artisan, providing all of Della's tools of the trade, and costumes are designed by Charles Schoonmaker. Sound designer Arshan Gailus also composed, performed, recorded, and mixed incidental music for the play. There are some fun sound snippets when Della and Tim are watching tv in bed, and when Della has conversations with George (voice of Daniel Berger-Jones), the unseen host of the baking show. Kudos to dialect coach Rebecca Schneebaum for helping the actors create gentle southern drawls.
Brunstetter deserves a lot of credit for writing characters who come across as real and not solely stereotypical. The central premise prepares us to think of Della as the villain of the story, but, by virtue of her story arc, and by MacDonald's fully realized portrayal, that doesn't happen. We are quick to judge people on the opposite side of a divide, perhaps more so now than in the past, so it is refreshing to see this version of polarizing events dramatized with humor, empathy, and the hope of reconciliation. Della posits that many of the world's problems might be resolved if she could bake a cake for everyone. Despite the obvious allusion to Marie Antoinette, I think it's worth a shot. Make cake, not war.