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In 2012, a bakeshop in Colorado denied a request for a wedding cake from a gay couple, claiming that doing so would violate the religious beliefs of shop owner Jack Phillips. The Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that Masterpiece Cakeshop violated anti-discrimination laws. The case went to the Supreme Court where the majority ruled in Phillips’ favor, protecting the owner’s rights under the first amendment, but the court’s decision did not provide an answer to whether or not businesses can refuse to serve gay people.
In Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake,” now playing at The Lyric Stage Company, Della, owner of Della’s Sweets, finds herself in the same situation as Phillips. Except, in this case, Della’s potential customer, Jen, is like a daughter to her.
Jen returns to her North Carolina roots to plan her dream wedding with her fiancée. All Jen wants is for her late mother’s best friend, Della, to make her wedding cake. Della could not be more thrilled to do this for Jen; she even brings up the idea herself. But Della learns one crucial detail that has her question whether she should make the cake at all: Jen is marrying a woman.
Della, a devout Christian raised in the South and played by the accomplished Karen MacDonald, believes that marriage should be solely between a man and a woman. She suddenly becomes busy, overbooked, and unable to make the cake when she finds out that her beloved Jen’s fiancée is not who she had imagined.
MacDonald, who has graced just about every stage across Boston and has performed in more than 70 shows at the American Repertory Theater, plays a layered Della. She’s a great listener, a steadfast wife, vivacious and witty. It would be easy to write her as a flattened bigot, but instead Brunstetter delivers a character that is nuanced and specific.
Although Brunstetter’s writing is energetic, the pace of this production lagged at times. Slow transitions between scenes stole energy from the performances. But, I was kept engaged by the lapses in realism marked by game show-inspired lights and sounds that take us into Della’s deeply conflicted psyche. The booming voice in her head is none other than a pompous judge named George from "The Great American Baking Show." George voices Della’s innermost fears and desires in the framework of a television baking competition. You can also expect the unexpected from costume designer Charles Schoonmaker, who pulls off some delightful surprises.
Perhaps what MacDonald captures the most truthfully is Della’s rediscovery of her own needs in her marriage to Tim played by seasoned Boston actor Fred Sullivan Jr. Their marriage has lost its passion and Della wants to feel desired again. When Jen describes to Della how intimacy with Macy “just felt right,” it awakens something in Della. MacDonald balances Della’s bravery and vulnerability when she attempts to spice up her love life with Tim. I won’t give away how she goes about doing so, but it’s definitely unexpected. MacDonald also delivers a powerfully honest confession to Tim of how ashamed of her own body she feels, a shame she believes she must have inherited from Eve.
Jen, played by Chelsea Diehl, also wrestles with deep-seated shame instilled in her by her mother. She’s torn in two, straddling the line between her wholesome Christian upbringing where her mom raised her to be “agreeable” and her future with the only person she’s ever loved, a love she did not expect either. One moment, she’s a Southern belle gushing over her storybook wedding plans outlined in Post-it clad binders. The next, Diehl embraces Jen’s insecurities and apprehensions by spilling her monologues out with messy abandon.
She fights back tears and paints on a smile of understanding when Della can’t make the cake. Diehl allows Jen to maneuver through all of the discomfort, guilt, shame, and uncertainty that the trip home has unearthed to reach a moment of freedom and catharsis toward the end, which felt really earned.
Macy, played by Kris Sidberry, unapologetically challenges Della’s point-of-view. At first she’s patient, but then becomes overwhelmed and ends up serving some pretty low blows. Moral ambiguity manifests itself in Macy’s personal and hurtful jabs at Della, exposing the close-mindedness that she too possesses and struggles to confront. She’s basically the opposite of Della. She’s liberal, cares deeply about politics, and is gluten and dairy free — arguably the hardest thing for cake-loving Della to understand.
Although I wish Sidberry had brought more of an edge to the hard-hitting journalist from New York (she didn’t stand out quite enough against the conservatism and peachy sweetness of Jen’s hometown), she tactfully revealed the sensitivity under Macy’s strong exterior. The cracks in her armor just about split open when she pleas with Della, “Why do you hate me?”
Brunstetter is a smart and poignant writer. She’s zoomed in on a debate that had attracted wide public attention by exploring the humanity and distinction in the key players often generalized in the media. Although Brunstetter opens Della up to us so we see her as more than just a villain, she never lets Della off the hook. Everything about her is challenged and she pays the consequences for her actions. She and Jen find new acceptance of themselves and those most important to them when their inherited shame knocks up against the undeniable human need for love and affection.
Furthermore, the production nicely parallels Della and Jen’s journeys toward surrendering fully to the love they have and were meant to give.
But the production’s fault lies in its halting dips in momentum throughout the show due to slow and disconnected transitions. I know it’s a traditional theatrical convention, but watching the stage crew members shift the props in a pool of blue or faded light simply took me out of the play. The necessity for a creative solution to the demands of the scene changes appeared overlooked.
I find so often that directors ignore transitions as an integral piece of the play and abstain from staging them in a way that enhances and moves the story forward. I wanted director Courtney O’Connor to lean in more fully to the zany moments and cracks in realism that Brunstetter has provided so deliberately and let it inspire her transitions. But, it’s clear that O’Connor had her focus set on guiding Della’s and Jen’s breakthroughs with empathy and compassion.
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