BWW Review: THE CAKE at New Conservatory Theatre Center Is A Smart Dramatization Based On A True Story
Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Tracy Ward
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Della, an ace cakemaker and soon-to be contestant on the Great American Baking Show says that "she believes that God created butter and sugar as rewards for us, for out good choices, sticking to what's right no matter how much the world changes." Time and obedience make the best cake and her precise cake-making rules parallel to her rigid faith. Based on the true story of a baker who refused to bake a same-sex wedding cake because it violated his religious beliefs The Cake's Della could be a narrow, bigoted one-dimensional anti-hero. But playwright Bekah Brunstetter, a writer on the Emmy-nominated series This is Us, takes a different tack by developing her as a multi-dimensional woman struggling with her religious beliefs, a loveless marriage and her desire for family. By imbuing Della with compassion, we can find sympathy for her character and her perspective.
Indeed, all the characters in The Cake are struggling. Della's Southern good old boy husband Tim is impotent therefore unworthy of making love with his to his wife. Jen, who's lost her mother struggles with her desire for faith and feels like there's a "rip in her". Her smart, African American journalist fiancée Macy is an anti-sugar, gluten-free agnostic generation Y. Brunstetter is certainly adept at writing dramatic characters and develops these four with just enough background history to allow us to see how they are playing out their deeply ingrained beliefs.
The plot is simple; Jen and Macy come back to Jen's hometown where Jen is planning the perfect wedding, including the perfect cake by her mother's best friend Della. Della, torn between her love for Jen and her religious beliefs cannot make the cake and she's supported in her decision by her husband who tells her "We know we can't pick and choose the Bible, honey." Jen and Macy have their troubles matched by Della and Tim.
There's some beautiful work here by the cast; Dixon Phillips' (Tim) agony over being less than a man, Asia Jackson's (Macy) righteous liberalism, Jensen Power (Jen) agonizing over her deep love for Macy and her romantic images of perfection. As Della, J.J. Van Name is a revelation. Bubbly, vivacious and as sweet as her buttercream frosting, Van Name embodies the Southern charmer seemingly unable to reconcile her faith with her desires. Desperately wanting to win the baking contest is only a diversion from her loveless marriage and years of subservience to her simple, controlling husband. It's a wonderful nuanced performance that allows us to see the humanity in someone we diametrically oppose.
Brunstetter gives us some powerful scenes like a side by side bedroom scene illustrating the love in the same-sex bed juxtaposed with Della and Tim's humdrum routine. Della's imagined scenes on the set of the baking show devolve into a moralistic voice-over judging her beliefs. Della's emotional self-resurgence is powerful and satisfying. The Cake has a heart-warming denouement to leave us, well, all sugary.
We may not like all the qualities in any of the characters portrayed here, but we're left challenged, more tolerant perhaps and hopeful that love is the main ingredient in any recipe.
The Cake continues through December 1st, 2019 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets are available at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (415) 861-8972.