BWW Review: THE CAKE Bakes Up a Deliciously Thoughtful Delight at Uptown Players
At the very start of THE CAKE, Della tells the audience her secret to baking her perfectly crafted signature desserts: she follows the recipe. And she's right. If cooking is an art, baking is a science, and too much or too little flour, eggs, or butter can turn heavenly delights to absolute hell. As far as Della is concerned, the world would be a much better place if everyone just strictly followed the instructions. However, people rarely act as predictably as household ingredients, and life is often much more complicated than reading directions off the printed page.
This conflict between desire and reality lies at the heart of one of the most recent regional premieres to hit the Dallas area. With a plot seemingly ripped from the headlines, Uptown Players' production of THE CAKE tells a delightful, surprisingly nuanced story of the ever-present conflict between idealism and reality, rock-steady faith and troubling doubt. The play runs at the Kalita Humphreys Theater through August 25.
THE CAKE is written by Bekah Brunstetter, a gifted young writer whom audiences may be familiar with even if they've never heard her name. Brunstetter has written for the TV series American Gods and This Is Us. Much like these two sensations, THE CAKE walks a delicate line between hilarious and heartbreaking, telling the story of Della, a small-town North Carolina baker who has been asked by Jen, her deceased friend's daughter, to bake a cake for her upcoming wedding. However, when Della realizes that Jen's spouse-to-be is the unapologetically outspoken writer Macy, her strictly conservative beliefs forbid her from supporting a same-sex marriage, even if it may be that of a loved one.
The most surprising and most moving aspect of Brunstetter's script is that it never devolves into easy, polarizing stereotypes. Della is no screeching Bible-thumper, and Jen and Macy never come across as unjustly maligned martyrs. Viewers hoping for a courtroom drama that takes the case all the way to Washington D.C. will be out of luck. Instead, THE CAKE, under the thoughtful yet fun-loving direction of Cheryl Denson, presents familiar figures in an ongoing culture war as flesh-and-blood people, all of whom possess lovable dreams and frustrating contradictions.
As Della, Shannon McGrann works with Brunstetter's script to craft the show's most complex and captivating character on the stage. Instead of taking a preaching or moralizing tone, McGrann defines her character through love and compassion, speaking to Jen and Macy with a touching degree of tenderness even during the most heated arguments. During one particularly moving moment, audiences can see the pain and conflict register in McGrann's face as Della turns down a trip with Jen to buy favors for the wedding. Moments such as these make it easy to understand and empathize with the character's doubts, illustrating that the path from ignorance to acceptance is a long and uneasy one.
Perhaps equally as impressive, though, is McGrann's ability to perfectly capture every comedic moment the show has the offer, keeping THE CAKE from ever taking itself too seriously. McGrann delivers her wittiest lines with a Southern charm (and occasional passive-aggressiveness) that may remind audiences of their own frustrating and beloved family members, and she commits to the play's physical comedy without turning the scenes into an exaggerated farce. In short, McGrann's performance will charm viewers while upending any expectations they may have about her character.
While McGrann may be the production's standout star, the remainder of the cast also excels at presenting characters that are both deeply funny and deeply human. The role of Macy - the compassionate yet confrontational black writer from New York City - acts as the starkest contrast to Della, yet Sky Williams plays the part with a sensitivity and care that shows that Macy and Della may have more in common than either would ever expect. Even in her debates with McGrann that make up much of the first scene, Williams's tone remains measured and unexpectedly playful, as though she deeply appreciates the chance to talk to and potentially learn from someone very different from herself.
Her scenes with Jen, played by Natalie Young, give both actresses the chance to illustrate that conflict isn't strictly limited to being played out across the political aisle. While Williams may be strong and direct, Young plays Jen with an innocence and vulnerability that only becomes more pronounced the longer she stays in her conservative hometown. While audiences will never doubt the couple's love (Williams and Young's chemistry is instantly apparent), they may wonder if the conflict over the cake is just a stand-in for a more persistent problem.
Rounding out the cast is Sonny Franks as Della's equally conservative yet frequently oblivious husband, Tim. Tim is the only character in the play that ever risks devolving into a familiar stereotype, though this may be because he has to act as the staunchly Christian sounding board for all of huis wife's doubts and fears. In spite of this, Franks makes the role an endearing one, showing flashes of tenderness and insecurity that chip away at the character's tough-guy exterior. Without spoiling anything, Franks also pulls off one of the show's most memorable scenes with a devilish charm that will leave viewers questioning their own preconceived notions of the character.
The play largely takes place in Della's bakery, and Dennis Canright has designed a set that looks as deliciously appetizing as it must taste. Broad, shimmering countertops and pleasingly painted displays host rows upon rows of carefully crafted cakes. The eagle-eyed viewer might even find a few references to other plays and musicals hidden within the confections' detailed decorations. Suzanne Cranford's costumes are as warm and inviting as Canright's environment, providing interesting contrasts between Della's Southern style and the young lovers' more comfortable cosmopolitan looks. These are accentuated further by Coy Covington's thoughtful hair, wig, and makeup designs, especially for Della.
The only troubling flaw in the show lies in the script itself. Running well under two hours, this is the rare production that audiences will wish had been longer, even by just a few minutes. Brunstetter's script, much like real life, avoids any easy resolutions, but the final scene ends on a (forgive the pun) bittersweet note. We feel as though these characters still have more to say to one another, if only so that we might still be reminded that life isn't always as black and white as we often make it seem.
All in all, Uptown Players' THE CAKE bakes up a largely satisfying, delightfully light treat, the rare play that offers an escape from reality while giving viewers a new perspective with which to confront it.
Photo Credit: Mike Morgan