Review: The Cake

There’s a three line exchange about mid-way through the Alley Theatre’s production of THE CAKE that sums up the show perfectly:

DELLA: “I told her the truth.”

MACY: “Which truth is that?”

DELLA: “The only one I know.”

What is the truth? These days, it can be hard to discern. And perhaps, we’re all a little bit wrong in what we perceive to be true.

After premiering at the Alley All-New Festival two years ago, THE CAKE gets a full-on production as the last show of the season in the smaller Neuhaus Theatre. The space serves the show well, bringing us right into Della’s Sweets, a cake shop in the south. You’re probably already familiar with the storyline thanks to current events: A gay couple is getting married and needs a cake. Will the baker object, and if so, on what grounds? A hatred of homosexuals or a religious objection? When one character asks, “Why do you hate me?” there is no simple answer. And part of the problem, at least from the point of view of the baker, is that the question itself is wrong. She doesn’t “hate” anyone, but she does disagree with some of their choices. In such a colorful world, things are not always black and white.

Julia Gibson is marvelous as Della, the cake shop owner who is about to appear on a national TV baking show. As the show opens, clearly conservative Della is having a conversation, perhaps even a friendly debate, with Macy (Candice D’Meza), who is clearly an ultra-liberal. What is brilliant about their conversation, and this play as a whole, is that their disagreement doesn’t turn into a yelling match. They listen to each other, and while they do not agree on much, they are respectful to each other. We could all learn a lot from these two and this play. They both have strong opinions, and at times I found myself agreeing with each. There were also times where I found some of their thoughts or ideals to be a bit outlandish. This early dialogue sets the stage (if you’ll pardon the phrase) for the rest of the 90-minute evening.

Later, when Jen (Elizabeth Stahlmann) arrives, two key points are reveals: 1) Della and Jen’s mom were best friends, and 2) Jen and Macy are getting married. To each other. As an audience, we know from the first line that this revelation is coming. But to watch Della as this news is revealed to her and she processes it is fascinating. The easy play would be for her to go from happy about a marriage to angry about a gay marriage, but the play and the actor do not make this choice. Instead, the moment is played as surprising, confusing, but never flat-out angry. You never see Della lose her love for Jen; she is simply trying to reconcile her thoughts and make all the pieces of this puzzle fit. Meanwhile, Della’s husband Tim (Michael Pemberton) has his own thoughts on what the right thing to do is and is also sheltering his own issues. His “resolution” plays out late in the show in a hilarious moment that I think even had the actors giggling a bit. I must admit it was also very nice to hear James Black’s voice, even if pre-recorded, as the “Great American Baking Show” announcer.

Stahlmann and D’Meza have a wonderful chemistry as Jen and Macy, with Jen torn between her southern roots and more liberal later life, while Macy is more sure of what she believes and wants. The character of Jen is a great amalgamation of the themes of the play, with her inner conflict at the heart of it all. She was raised with a set of beliefs that is now in direct conflict with her current life. But instead of abandoning her upbringing or denying her love for another women, she tries to live with both, realizing that there are truths in both ways of life.

When we meet all four characters, they seem to be a bit of a caricature of the archetypes of the southern lady, the lesbian, the controlling husband, etc. But as we get to know them (and every character has a great story arc) we learn to like them all, even if we disagree with parts of each of them. This could have very easily been a play about espousing one view, but rather wisely it instead presents all the points of view and lets both the characters and the audience decide. There are no easy answers and at times there is tension or a raised voice, but you never feel that it is just yelling “over” each other. This is art wishing life would imitate it.

Bekah Brunstetter, a writer and producer for the television phenomenon THIS IS US has penned a fantastic play and director Jackson Gay, a frequent Alley director, has done a wonderful job at bringing her vision to life in the intimate Neuhaus space. While I would imagine it to still be powerful on a proscenium stage, the play benefits greatly from having the audience practically inside the cake shop or the bedrooms of the couples. The scenic design by Clint Ramos is very impressive and there are unexpected scene changes for a space of this size. The rest of the design team has done a wonderful job of creating multiple spaces within this single in-the-round theatre, with a particular nod to David Lander’s lighting design, which works especially well during the “Great American Baking Show” sequences.

While not revealing the ending, I will say that the play does not take the easy way out or simple tell us what to think. Minds are changed, but in surprising and realistic ways. I also appreciate an ending where not every thread is resolved, giving us time to contemplate both the themes portrayed in the play but also a chance to imagine where the characters might go and what they might do in the future. Have we learned enough about them to know for sure? No matter what, we likely won’t agree with all their choices. And if there’s one thing I took away from THE CAKE, that’s okay.

****1/2 out of *****
“The Cake”
By Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Jackson Gay
Alley Theatre
Now through July 1st
Photo: Elizabeth Stahlmann as Jen, Candice D’Meza as Macy, and Julia Gibson as Della in “The Cake” at the Alley Theatre

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