America’s culture wars get an illuminating skirmish in The Cake, Bekah Brunstetter’s play about a white North Carolina woman named Jen, who returns to her hometown from Brooklyn to plan the traditional wedding of her dreams.
The other figure atop the spectacular cake will be a second bride. And that’s a hurdle that Della, a white Christian baker whose best friend was Jen’s late mother, can’t — or won’t — scale.
Initially thrilled when she thinks Jen has a groom waiting in the wings, Della claims she has a packed schedule when it becomes clear that Macy, the inquisitive young black woman who has come into Della’s bakery, is Jen’s romantic partner.
The Cake then asks of both the baker and the bride: What do you do when someone you love does something you can’t accept? The version of the play showing at the Arsht Center was produced by City Theatre and offers an insightful, bittersweet, tenderly wrought rendition of Brunstetter's much-produced play.
Like the playwright, director Margaret M. Ledford gives weight and respect to the conflicting beliefs and emotions in the script. The Cake aims to dig deeper than the us-versus-them positions that fuel so much ugliness in discourse. It wants us to listen, to think, to consider different perspectives. And, as an audience, we do.
When we first meet Della (Irene Adjan), she’s in her shop preparing to compete on The Big American Bake-Off, a reality TV show modeled on The Great British Baking Show.
As she expounds on her faith in full-fat baking and following a recipe with scientific precision, a sensuousness sneaks into her often funny commentary. Later, as Della imagines the voice of the hot British host of Bake-Off (Daniel Llaca) getting way too personal with her, it becomes clear there’s a lot of sublimation going on in Della’s life. That’s underscored by the lack of passion in her companionable relationship with her plumber hubby Tim (Michael Gioia), who unquestioningly accepts the Bible as the guidebook to living.
But with the arrival of Jen (Lexi Langs) and Macy (Stephon Duncan), Della begins to ponder her settled life and beliefs — and to long for more. Going home again also makes Jen think about the ideas that shaped her, about the push toward the traditional, about the unexpected joy of finding love with an out and proud black woman. For her part, Macy is dismayed that the rocky homecoming and Della’s awkward excuse about the wedding cake have amplified Jen’s prewedding jitters.
Brunstetter packs a lot, including plenty of frank sexual talk, into a 90-minute play that was inspired in part by what became the U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
In creating her rich characters, the former This Is Us writer/producer sometimes resorts to provocative shorthand in defining them. Jen, for example, uses the C-word with Della as she describes her anguish at being torn between her past and present.
Although Adjan’s Della displays a reflexive narrow-mindedness, the actor infuses her character with warmth and complexity. It would also be easy to view Tim as a traditional Southern guy who sees himself as the leader of his two-person family, but Gioia’s aura of fondness for Della and, finally, his playfulness make Tim more
than an archetype.
If Langs’ Jen and Duncan’s Macy aren’t an obvious match, that’s more in the writing than in the actors’ performances. Jen is a skittish beauty who has yet to emotionally meld the Southern traditions that shaped her with her hip life in Brooklyn. As Macy, Duncan is adept at conveying both frankness and a simmering pain.
Creatively, costume designer Ellis Tillman has done beautifully expressive and character-underscoring work — outfitting the petite Adjan in cheerful prints and a drop-dead gorgeous emerald-green cocktail dress; drawing the contrast between Jen’s traditional look and Macy’s free-spirited one, even in their striking wedding attire; and putting Tim in work uniforms and pajamas.
Eric Nelson’s lighting helps shift the action on Joe Rawda’s segmented set: from Della’s shop, with its display cases of baked goods; to her homey bedroom; to the bedroom at Jen’s cousin’s house, where she and Macy have just made love; and to the burnished place where Della’s fantasies and worries play out.
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That little jingling bell that sounds whenever someone enters through the unseen door to Della’s shop? That’s the work of sound designer Matt Corey.
Can The Cake shift entrenched beliefs? Maybe not. But City Theatre’s production accomplishes what the playwright, the director, the actors, and the creative team intended. Theatergoers think and feel, talk and debate, as love and understanding rise to the top.
— Christine Dolen, artburstmiami.com
The Cake. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and 3 p.m. Sunday through December 22 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $45 to $50.