Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Head over Heels
It's a pity, for reasons beyond the fact that The Cake is complex and touching, with Denny Dillon as its multi-layered leading lady. Under the gentle, thoughtful direction of Sara Bruner, Ms. Dillon plays Della Brady, the owner of a cake shop in North Carolina, steeped in the art of baking ("the most important thing is to follow the rules!," she insists) and in the challenges of Southern conservative Christianity. In 2015 newspapers and TV were crowded with vexing stories about the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado which refused to bake a cake for an LGBTQ wedding. The headlines have changed since then. But in The Cake, set in playwright Brunstetter's home state of North Carolina, the social conundrum is touching and heartbreaking. Thanks to its director and leading lady, the play says a lot about how deeply we rely upon each other, despite our differences.
It's also a pity because it may be the best thing to come out of The Rep since Ms. Sharif took over at the beginning of this season. She has put together a perfect show and a damned good season, opening with the well-received Angels in America and The Lifespan of a Fact, followed by a swaggering Pride and Prejudice. Each of these seemed to be titles with a single artistic vision that everyone could agree on behind the scenes. I loved Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, but an aimless Thanksgiving Play followed, and a lifeless, overblown The Mystery of Irma Vep had audiences fleeing at intermission. In spite of that fiery wreckage, it's been a stunning amount of fine entertainment. Indisputably, the gods of theater have given Ms. Sharif one hell of an initiation, as the artistic director of the Midwest's most prestigious theater (south of Chicago's Loop, anyway).
And now coronavirus. But Ms. Sharif's predecessor had a long and happy career in the same spot, and all of this is probably just the earthquake between dominions. Just now, The Cake seems like the spirit of Hope at the bottom of Pandora's box.
In this 2017 play, inspired by the Masterpiece Cakeshop story, three out of four characters strike a pose of brash intention, emblematic of our modern self-assuredness. But gradually, all human bravado turns to a Swiss cheese of the gaping holes in our self-admiration and, in the end, real strength only comes from reaching out to others in love. Critics have criticized Ms. Brunstetter as a sitcom-type playwright, but (I guess) they only rarely watch sitcoms, which are furiously mass-produced like sausages. Here, thoughtful Dria Brown is Macy, the brash New Yorker who instigates a conflict with Della (Ms. Dillon). And the two are brought together because Della's a church friend of the family of Jen (Rigel Harris), who is now planning a lesbian wedding to Macy. (Ms. Harris and Ms. Dillon show the widest dramatic range in this comedy.) The excellent cast is rounded out by Carl Palmer as Tim, Della's husband.
Della has stress-induced nightmares about appearing on a TV baking show, while Tim has turned his back on her, romantically. No moment is wasted in discovering every inch of Della's emotional terrain, in fact it sometimes resembles a one-woman show, for all the time spent examining her life and circumstance. Meanwhile, Jen is regressing into a Southern teenager all over again, returned to her old childhood territory. And in Ms. Harris' performance, we see the way society has evolved, very suddenly, in just the last few decades. It's a performance that, while less expansive, rivals Ms. Dillon's. The two are woven together in unexpected conflict, almost tauntingly, by Ms. Brown as Macy. And perhaps in a 90-minute show it could all be dismissed as formulaic.
But as we go into a month or two of relative theater-starvation, try to remember how live performance presents characters in three dimensions, for our close inspection after weeks of intense rehearsal and intellectual interrogation that you will never find on television. Every gesture, every pause, every faltering moment in live theater is part of the "moment-to-moment" structure, and means something, often the discovery of something new or deeply personalsomething that's been adjudicated patiently in the development of a performance: a measure of the soul which is almost invariably crowded out by commercials when you're stuck at home channel surfing and waiting out the bug.
Originally scheduled to run through March 29, The Cake will now close March 15, 2020, due to public health concerns, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University, St. Louis MO. For updates on Dreaming Zenzile, which might yet take the Mainstage this summer, and more information, visit www.repstl.org.
Cast (in speaking order):
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association