5/25/2019 THE CAKE Horizon Theatre
****½ ( A )
THE PERSISTENCE OF ETHOS
ETHOS: "The fundamental character or spirit of culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period."
Although Bekah Brunstetter's The Cake takes a political controversy as it's starting point -- the refusal of a baker to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple -- it is anything but a political polemic. As would be expected from a writer from TV's This is Us, this is instead a warm and winning reflection on romance, on love, on family, and especially on the affections that unite us in spite of the politics that divide us.
Our baker, Della, does not, in fact, refuse to bake that cake -- she simply finds excuses to not bake it.
Welcome to Della's Bakery, a popular source of confectionery joy in Winston-Salem, NC (specialty is Pink Lemonade Cake). We are in a deep-South ethos, where men rule the roost and the Bible is the only book you need. Della is a surrogate mother to Jen, whose late mother was Della's best friend. But Jen moved off to New York, and is now returning home for her wedding -- she she wants to recreate her mother's own wedding, and she wants Della to make the cake. Of course. But Jen's intended is an African-American woman, Macy, whose own ethos is big-city upbringing and liberal-talking-points. Jen has
been able to reconcile her own competing worldviews, but, the longer she stays in the south, the more her urban side recedes.
This is a mere sampling of the complex and conflicting threads of thought and modes of belief that characterize this terrific script -- if marriage is for raising children what does that say about Della's marriage to Tim, who is unable to have kids? If Jen is, at root, a product of the south, how can she possibly be attracted to Macy? If same-sex marriage is so wrong, what does that say about Della and Tim, who haven't "kissed with their tongues" in over ten years?" If Della loves Jen so much, how can she begrudge her the love she has found for the first time? And is Della's queasiness about the cake her choice or Tim's command?
It's a credit to Ms. Brunstetter's script that NONE of these questions are answered, while all of them seem to be resolved. Ethos doesn't change, but personal interactions do. That the show ends on a gentle scene between Macy and Della shows that adjustments can be made (without sacrificing core beliefs), when love is involved. It's telling that the show includes two seduction scenes between Della and Tim that would never be given a thumbs-up in evangelical circles -- one involving strategically placed white-cream frosting, the other with a prominent mound of mashed potatoes ("I couldn't find any icing.").
These characters are filled with prejudgments, like, well, y'know, real people -- Della makes assumptions about Macy that are wrong AND right, Macy makes prejudgments about Della that are right AND wrong. Tim may come across as a pompous macho blowhard, but his vulnerable side is never far hidden. Jen may come across as a sweet Southern Belle, but you better not cross her unless you want to fall prey to her fierce side.
I love how these four actors find countless layers -- no one is a cliché, no matter how much they view each other as such. Marcie Millard centers the show as Della, a woman with more love than can be held down by any dogma -- she just wants to "follow the directions," no matter their source. Allan Edwards is tremendous as Tim, playing his "man of the house" role even as his heart is breaking from Jen's nuptials and his own infertility (what DOES that say about his "manliness?"). Rhyn McLemore Saver is a sweet ball of energy as Jen, wearing her heart on her sleeve and her disappointment in her eyes. And Parris Sarter is perfect as Macy, embodying every cliché about a big city liberal even as Jen and Della chip away at her expectations. Her reaction at taking a taste of Della's cake -- complete with SUGAR and DAIRY and GLUTEN -- is simply priceless. Did I mention that the audience does get wedding cake after the show? I only wish it had been Della's Pink Lemonade cake.
Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have designed and constructed a sugary confection of a set, a bakery shop that is every bit as scrumptious-looking as Della's cakes. Scenes in Della and Tim's bedroom and a couch shared by Jen and Macy are smoothly accomplished via turntable and push-in platform. Mary Parker keeps the lighting smooth and elegant -- filled with a palette of pastel icing tones and an irising follow-spot that highlights Della's inner-monologues, as well as her conversations with "God," which is to say the British host of a Baking Competition Show on which she is about to appear.
Cole Spivia has dressed everyone in character-specific clothes (and foodstuffs). The wedding outfits for Jen and Macy are especially simple and elegant. Exquisitely so. And Lauren Morris directs with a sure-fire energy that emphasizes the characters more than the politics,
This is a very good script that acknowledges the persistence of ethos, that changing hearts and minds is not as simple as just saying "we have to change hearts and minds." Especially when those hearts and minds have such deep roots in faith, in relationships, and in ethos. It's easy to take a stand, to pass judgments, when strangers (even customers) are involved. It's not so easy when someone you deeply love is involved.
The Cake is definitely worth a taste!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #htcCAKE #htc35)