With our country's current political divisiveness that resists acknowledging opposing viewpoints, it's refreshing to have the middle ground of PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of Bekah Brunstetter's The Cake. This gentle, warm comedy about marriage equality and traditional beliefs does more for bringing understanding to the issues than many a protest rally or opinion column.
Brunstetter, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Winston-Salem native, didn't set out to have a "ripped from the headlines" play, but by its premiere this past July, the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple was headed to the U.S. Supreme Court and is on the fall docket.
Watchers of that case would benefit from Brunstetter's determinedly balanced narrative concerning a dilemma that confronts Della, a popular cake maker and bakeshop owner. Her firmly entrenched religious beliefs get shaken up when Jen, the daughter of her best friend, returns home to Winston-Salem to get married. Thrilled at first to see her after years of Jen's living in Brooklyn, Della is soon wrestling with the news that Jen's spouse will be a woman and that Jen wants Della to make the wedding cake.
In Della's well-ordered world, recipes are strictly followed, as are Bible scriptures. But despite her close-minded husband Tim's assumption that she won't make the cake, Della is torn, because she's always loved Jen and wants to see her happy. As Della deals with her conflicting feelings, she begins to question her own marital happiness with a husband who's not been romantically inclined for over ten years.
Della's dilemma isn't helped by Jen's soon-to-be bride, Macy, whose fierce confrontations on matters from gay rights to the deadly effects of sugar rattle Della's sweet, Southern complacency. Macy's attitude also causes arguments with Jen, who wants Macy to dial back confrontations for the wedding in Jen's hometown to honor her dead mother. This is Jen's first same-sex relationship, and she still has lingering ties to her traditional Southern upbringing, but Macy has been firmly out all along and has little patience with prejudice and adherence to received values.
A prolific playwright and TV scriptwriter (including the hit series, This Is Us), Brunstetter creates engaging characters on both sides of the issues, while giving them believable flaws and foibles. Although the dialogue is often frank and intense, she constantly diffuses the tension with well-timed punch lines, many eliciting some of the longest, loudest laughter heard in any theater recently. Some scenes lean towards sit-com physical comedy, but always with a human touch. And there are a few lines that stealthily grab the heart for a tear or two.
The 95-minute one-act feels a little longer than necessary, particularly in repeated segments depicting Della's participation in a TV baking show contest. These are meant to show Della's perfect world crumbling as an unseen show host questions her skills and intentions. But they add little to the story, while quickly becoming unwelcome disruptions. They also contain increasingly crude language that seems out of place with the rest of the script.
There's an overly long monologue for Della that's a too-obvious statement of theme, and Macy's first scene has her spouting too many liberal manifestos in one conversation. But all can be forgiven for the thoroughly enjoyable time spent with characters who struggle to understand themselves, allowing empathy to develop through humor and respect for conflicting convictions.
Julia Gibson's Della oozed Southern charm, along with an accent that echoed, but didn't imitate, Dolly Parton's. Gibson's characterization combined familiar aspects of Southern churchwomen and club ladies. She made confident transitions from comfortable to unsettled to undone, with gestures and line readings that constantly amused but also showed the turmoil underneath.
Gibson was especially delightful in her scenes with Derrick Ivey as husband Tim. Ivey proved again he's a master of characterizations, easily convincing as an overworked plumber who just wants his dinner from a dutiful wife. When Della tries to reignite Tim's romantic urges, Ivey's body language and halting stabs at explaining his feelings made Tim movingly sympathetic.
Jenny Latimer astutely played Jen's feeling of being trapped between two worlds. She projected the joy of finding her true self in her love for Macy and the nostalgia for the simpler world she grew up in but must reject. Christine Mirzayan succeeded in making the potentially off-putting Macy into a layered, complicated character, her begrudged warming up to Della emotionally satisfying.
Director Jeffrey Meanza kept the pace efficiently moving along but allowed time for reactions and transitions to be fully realized. Some slowing of pace was out of his hands with scene changes that depended on the Playmakers stage elevator dropping down one setting and waiting for another to be loaded and lifted up.
Jan Chambers' breathtaking bakeshop set, with a large glass display case and floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with fancily decorated cakes, included a central turntable revealing other locations, including Jen's parents' home and a wedding venue. Burke Brown's lighting gave a warm glow to the bakeshop and a tacky flash to the TV show segments. Georgia Lee's costumes appropriately defined each character.
The production is highly recommended for its particularly deft way of giving all viewpoints equal time and integrity, while also pointing out their excesses and closed-off thinking. Whatever the range of convictions among audience members on opening night, there was a gratifying atmosphere of common ground achieved.
The Cake continues through Sunday, October 1. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.