Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
In North Carolina, Della (Rupp) explains the intricacies of preparing a scrumptious cake. She takes great pride in her capabilities, her conservative opinions and, assuredly, her religious beliefs. She also is determined to become recognized on a television reality show for her baking dexterity. An unseen voice from beyond (that of Morrison Keddie) communicates with Della relative to her chances and dramatically informs her about her prospects regarding "The Great American Baking Show."
Jen (Virginia Vale) is a pretty, blonde, appealing Southern woman who lost her own mother five years earlier. Della, who does not have children, is a surrogate aunt figure to and for Jen, who, now living in Brooklyn, returns to North Carolina and asks that Della bake a cake for Jen's upcoming wedding reception. Della abruptly finds out for herself that Jen (whom she calls Jenny) is to marry a politically savvy, articulate African-American woman. Della is funny, chirpy, and amiable. She also holds fast to the moral conventions she has always known. Macy (Nemuna Ceesay), who has been living with Jen, is anything but reticent. She is bothered by the amount of sugar in cakes and she believes gluten is an enemy. Her convictions are strong and she is unafraid to speak her mind.
Della's husband Tim (Douglas Rees) is large and friendly and exceptionally "red state" in his outlook. He loves Della, but their relationship is significantly lacking. A good man, he obviously cares about his wife.
This production requires pinpoint timing and the cast, directed precisely by Jennifer Chambers (who also helmed the world premiere of this play in Los Angeles), is up to the task. The ensemble, adept with rotating stages, performs with fluency as this humorous drama moves from moments of hilarity to others of keen poignancy. Tim Mackabee's set is deliciously appropriate. Naturally, its center is the bake shop, but that is not all.
Rupp's Della is meticulous, bouncy, able to lose herself in fantasy, and very much concerned for those close to her. Della's dilemma is this: how can she possibly bake a cake, even for the daughter of her now-deceased closest friend, when the wedding couple are of the same sex? Della adores Jen, remarking that "I know her heart."
A portion of Della's character, the attentive, fastidious part, wants to simply concentrate on the cakes. That is not possible and Brunstetter has written a complex, thoughtful Della who wrestles with conflicting emotions. To the playwright's credit, all of her characters are sympathetic people who, in the end, challenge stereotype. The Cake is not "This Is Us." Yet, compassion and empathy oftentimes distinguishes the TV series, and capacity to feel deeply for fellow human beings is the distinctive quality of this insightful play.
The Cake is (forgive me) multi-layered and rich. It is provocative, too, since both script and performance beg for continued conversation beyond the theater. It is a pleasure to watch Rupp at work amid actors who bring significant know-how and talent. The individual acting assets, when combined, fuse and enable a delightfully affecting presentation.
The Cake, through July 15th, 2018, on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield MA. For tickets, call 413-236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.