Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot focuses on Della, the owner of a bakery in North Carolina who follows the scripture like she follows her recipesby the book. Della is excited as she's recently been selected as a contestant on the upcoming season of a bakery competition TV show. However, Della's world is about to encounter a major hiccup and an unsurmountable obstacle when Jen, the daughter of Della's now deceased best friend whom she loves like a daughter, asks her to make the cake for her upcoming wedding. Della is ecstatic at the news. The only issue? Jen is marrying a woman, which doesn't align with Della's literal reading of the Bible. Can Della find a way to bend her beliefs to bake the cake for Jen and her fiancée Marcy?
At first glance you might think this play is a fictitious portrayal of events surrounding the Masterpiece Cakeshop, the bakery in Colorado that was sued when they refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, claiming it went against their religious beliefs. While that may have been on Brunstetter's radar, she crafts a much more personal story that gives new insight into the issues of religious freedom and discrimination vs. civil rights and freedom of personal expression. Brunstetter is a writer and producer of TV's "This Is Us," so she clearly knows how to combine humor and heartbreak while also creating realistic characters and situations that center around topical issues. In her play she also folds in many other longstanding battles that have been dividing us for years: white vs. black, North vs. South, and urban vs. rural. And, while there is plenty of drama and ugliness in the piece, there is also a lot of comedy and beauty.
Brunstetter paints fully three-dimensional characters who, under Katie McFadzen's succinct direction, are brought vividly to life by a superb cast for this production. McFadzen has spent the bulk of her career working at Childsplay and her vast experience in both comedy and drama, and in knowing how to perfectly deliver shows with life lessons and others that center on serious topics to audiences of all ages, works very well here.
Della thinks every world problem can be solved with a slice of cake and Jodie Weiss is exceptional at portraying this lovable, conflicted woman who shows just how difficult it is for someone to change. Brunstetter has crafted a soulful woman who, while she may at first be perceived to be a bigot and simpleminded, we clearly see from her many layers that she is far from either. Weiss is superb portraying the reflective nature and emotional soul searching of Della. With a firm grasp on the subtlety and nuance found in reflective pauses and facial expressions that project the character's internal struggle, it is a brave, hilarious and heartbreaking performance of a woman torn between faith and family.
Megan Holcomb and Racquel McKenzie are equally as good as Jen and Macy. Holcomb is a revelation of joy, conflict and nerves as this excited young woman who carries around an overstuffed binder full of wedding ideas but also can't stop wondering what her mother, who never knew she was gay, would have felt about her marrying a woman. Though Jen was raised to be agreeable, and at first apologizes for asking Della to bake the cake for her, we see from Holcomb's heartfelt performance how she is still terrified of her disapproving mother and the life she now leads which, it seems, she was raised to hate. As Macy, McKenzie beautifully balances the fine line between anger and grace as a smart woman who has suffered hatred and discrimination in her past. In less capable hands and direction, Macy could come across as a brittle, shrill and annoying person, but McKenzie shows us there is depth beneath the somewhat stereotypically perceived views we, and Della, first have of her.
Christopher Haines is very good as Della's husband Tim, a working-class man who is stuck in his old school beliefs of what a traditional marriage should be and how the roles of a husband and wife are clearly defined. Haines' performance also breaks our perceived beliefs of a closed-minded man, and he gives a poignant and affecting portrayal. David Appleford provides exuberant interludes as the surreal voice of the TV baking competition's host, who goads Della on in humorous and revelatory ways.
Technical aspects are superb, with Aaron Sheckler's creative scenic design of two rotating panels and bright colors effectively portraying the cheery bakery and the bedrooms of the two couples. The crisp lighting designed by Dallas Robert Nichols delivers warm tones for the bakery and bedroom scenes, plus vibrantly rich designs for the fantasy bakery competition segments. Maci Cae Hosler's costumes quickly help flesh out the unique aspects of the very different characters, and Dolores Mendoza's props deliver an abundance of beautiful baked items.
It's often said that the best way for an individual to change their close-minded views and beliefs in regard to people who are different from them is to have them as a family member, neighbor, co-worker or friend. That way, they can learn first-hand to see the person behind their perceived stereotypical views. It also proves that the same is also true for a non-religious person to get a better understanding of someone who is devout. In doing so, this play beautifully shows that the issue of religious freedom vs. civil rights is one with two sides, where both parties need to find a way to move toward understanding in order to make progress. As the world and culture changes around us, Bekah Brunstetter's The Cake is a relevant play that expertly challenges our ideas and beliefs.
Stray Cat Theatre's The Cake, through November 24, 2018, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, call 480-227-1766 or visit straycattheatre.org.
Playwright: Bekah Brunstetter
* Appearing courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States, appearing under a Special Appearance Contract