The comedy The Cake is now playing at Farmer’s Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.
A few minutes after the lights come up on Della’s bakery, the lead character is presented with a problem seemingly ripped from today’s headlines. Della must choose between either baking a cake for a friend’s same-sex wedding or the religious beliefs of her North Carolina town. At stake is potential fame via application of her confectionary skills in a nationally televised bakeoff.
Bekah Brunstetter’s charming script touches on a number of issues that regularly surface on the American landscape. These include gay marriage, the influence of religion in commerce and the workplace, and the ingredients in the food we consume and sell.
The fickle winds of political correctness that buffet the national scene also create stress for the play’s four characters. But director D. Terry Williams’ production rises above politics because it highlights each character’s resilience, the joy of their everyday lives, and the humor of human-scale, practical solutions to problems in the storefront, homefront, kitchen, and bedroom.
Della, played by Zoe Vonder Haar, begins her journey extolling the value of the butter, sugar, and eggs she uses in her cakes. Her plan for creating award-winning confections is appealing: stick with real ingredients and carefully follow each direction in the recipe. If only Della’s life could follow the simple rules she applies in baking. We quickly learn why it can’t.
As Macy, a young African-American woman from Brooklyn played by Tia Pinson, begins to challenge some of Della’s traditional notions about diet, gluten, and the ethics of sugar, we begin to see Della’s world unraveling. Vonder Haar’s strong suit throughout this delightful comedy is the actresses’ ability to portray Della’s journey sympathetically through the little things she does trying to cope with the encroachment of a changing world that she doesn’t understand. For instance, Vonder Haar sweetens Della’s voice to hide her dismay as she learns that her best friend’s daughter Jen, played by Molly Spiroff, will soon marry her female partner, Macy. She fusses and fidgets with Della’s calendar as she struggles to show Jen that she can’t quite find on opening for the wedding cake that she's reluctant to bake.
To lure her husband back to bygone marital bliss, she carefully self-applies butter frosting with the attention usually reserved for creations in her bakery. When her spouse balks at partaking of the tempting feast she offers, Vonder Haar reveals a woman crushed, pounding the empty place inside her chest and longing for a joy that she fears may never return.
In Della’s solo conversations with the disembodied voice of George, the TV bakeoff host, Vonder Haar shifts emotional gears again as she gazes raptly into a light from above, hanging on every word as if it were divine revelation. She is so taken with George’s British accent that she suggests it to her husband Tim, played by Steve Isom, as a prelude to their lovemaking. But Isom’s long-suffering plumber has his own ideas for enhancing the couple’s activities in the boudoir. This actor gets the credit for generating what might be one of the longest sustained laughs of this theatre season.
A key question that Brunstetter’s play addresses is this: Where do people find joy? Engaged couple Jen and Macy successfully reinforce this theme and answer the question in several ways.
Molly Spiroff’s Jen shows us a young Southern woman who feels shame when breaking with her religious upbringing. But she can't submit to the rigid scriptural strictures that would inhibit enjoyment of sex with her partner Macy. Spiroff wears her emotions on the long white sleeves of her bridal gown as she displays all of the momentary frustrations of a bride who wants everything “to be perfect” in a “traditional” wedding that is bound to break with local tradition.
Pinson, as Macy, brings to her character the ferocity of one who's had to blaze her own unique trail to find joy. Pinson is a performer capable of quickly climbing up on step to lecture on ethics one moment and gracefully bend to indulge others the next, as she does when she accommodates her partner’s “Disney movie” nuptial fantasy.
Dan Guyette’s delicious, brightly lighted, pink and purple layer cake of a set provides the production’s piece de resistance, as well as a playground for Della’s culinary talents. It also functions as a proving ground for testing the beliefs and predilections of the sometimes flawed but fully-dimensional and endearing characters who cue up for their own sweet slice of “The Cake”’ at Farmer’s Alley Theatre.