Among the seemingly infinite heartbreaking (for liberals) news stories since the last presidential election was the 2018 Supreme Court decision in favor of a Colorado baker who refused on religious grounds to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
That real-life event, coupled with the playwright’s personal history, inspired Bekah Brunstetter’s dramedy “The Cake,” a surprisingly delightful new play now running at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo.
Brunstetter, a writer and producer for NBC’s celebrated “This is Us,” walks a fine line between polemic, love story, and character study in the eight well-constructed scenes in this 90-minute show; and in Director D. Terry Williams’ capable hands — with a clever design team and four talented actors who deliver some excellent performances — this “Cake” is multi-layered and far more satisfying than your average confection.
The story focuses on Southern Belle entrepreneur Della, lover of real butter and sugar, owner of her own cake shop, and soon-to-be contestant on reality TV show “The Big American Bake Off”. She’s self described as “apolitical,” but when her deceased best friend’s daughter comes home to North Carolina from New York City to have her dream wedding, Della struggles with whether it’s the right thing to do to bake the wedding cake when she discovers that Jen is marrying a woman.
The woman Jen is marrying is Macy, a progressive black journalist who wants no part of the wedding or being in the South, but compromises herself out of love for Jen. Their relationship is a passionate one in which they openly discuss their conflicts — which are significant, largely because of their differences, including Jen’s white, Southern background and latent bloom as a lesbian which have led to subsequent closeted tendencies.
Unfolding parallel to that relationship is Della’s marriage to plumber husband Tim, who, as it turns out, isn’t just an outright homophobe, he also won’t have sex with Della anymore. Christian shame is at the center of it, and Della’s heartbreak in her longing for love and affection is made all the more poignant as it plays out amid scenes of Jen and Macy’s robust love life — as well as intermingled among surreal scenes of Della’s performance on the baking show.
Those surreal scenes as well as so much of the rest of the story work because of excellent technical choices, from Dan Guyette’s beautiful set that allows for interesting scene changes to Kristen Chesak’s creative and evocative lighting design, to Kathryn Wagner’s attractive costumes.
And the writing itself generally creates a wonderful tension and complex emotionality that moves the story beyond the political, but the performances — especially Zoe Vonder Haar’s as Della — show realness and genuine vulnerability, and really give the story depth.
Vonder Haar’s Della is vibrant and funny, and she inspires great compassion for this character who’s convincingly in a moral quandary. She’s easy to love, even if we don’t like her stance. Molly Spiroff, too, beautifully portrays a character in conflict, though hers springs from a desire to marry her past with her present as well as to be true to herself even when others don’t like it.
These women’s partners aren’t as complex as characters or as strongly written, though Steve Isom’s Tim is down-to-earth and expresses a depth of emotion that jumps between humor and anger and shame; and Tia Pinson creates a sense of genuine love amid her rage.
Ultimately it is love that drives this story. And while it shows the painful truth that we so often hurt those we love, it also makes real that we can heal those hurts if we’re honest and willingly to try. Doing the right thing isn’t always as clear cut as we’d like or think we were taught, but ultimately, it is possible.
Farmers Alley Theatre