Inspired by the Colorado case of a baker who refused to make a cake for a gay male couple, Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake sounds, at least on paper, like a play that could wind up well-intentioned but simplistic. Luckily, it’s not. Currently onstage at Horizon Theatre and running through June 23, the production manages to find empathy for all its characters thanks to some fine direction and performances.
Brunstetter, who for three seasons served as a writer for NBC’s This Is Us, hails from the South, and her father — a state senator — voted against a same-sex marriage amendment seven years ago. This is personal material for the playwright, who is heterosexual but has long been an LGBTQ ally and is turning her play into a film.
The lead character here is Della (Marcie Millard), who owns a bakery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and is about to make her television debut on a baking show. As she is preparing for that, she gets an unexpected visit from Jen (Rhyn McLemore Saver), whose mother was Della’s best friend. The two women have not seen each other in years — Jen now lives in New York — and Della agrees to make a cake when she realizes Jen is about to get married. Yet, when Della finds out that Jen is planning to marry another woman — Macy (Parris Sarter) — she suddenly realizes that her fall schedule is busier than she thought. At home, she discusses the matter with her husband, Tim (Allan Edwards), who is not supportive of LGBTQ couplings.
The Cake posits a much-debated question: Does a merchant have the right to refuse service based on religious grounds? The Colorado case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately sided with the baker on account of religious freedom and artistic expression. Brunstetter examines both sides.
The niftiest element of the play is how Brunstetter gives depth to her four characters. Jen, for instance, feels shame in being who she is, while Macy — who is black, agnostic and a lesbian — is out and proud, although she can feel like she never fits in. Likewise, Jen feels protective of her friends in the South, while Macy at times can come across as wholly dismissive. On their end, Della and Tim are having marital issues.
After gigs around the country the last three years, The Cake opened Off-Broadway earlier this spring in an uneven, often maddening production. Debra Jo Rupp played Della in a performance that made the lead character easy to root for. Macy, however, came across as hostile, condescending and vindictive — and as an unexpected villain.
The major flaw of the play is a late plot device that feels cruel and unnecessary. Brunstetter delicately balances the show to give Della layers and prove she isn’t just a one-dimensional bigot. Her relationship with Jen is the crux of the show, and Della’s decision not to make the cake weighs heavily on her. Yet, the play ultimately punishes Della at the hands of another character, personally and professionally, and it betrays the careful groundwork that the playwright has laid. It feels cruel, a bit lazy and out of whack with what has preceeded it.
Directed by Lauren Morris, though, the Horizon production feels more authentic and its characters and their situations more real. A lot is going on with these four characters, and there is as much conflict between Jen and Macy and Della and Tim as there is with the central dilemma.
Despite the character’s biases, Edwards manages to make Tim a sympathetic figure as he tries to be supportive of his wife amidst their own setbacks. He also has the play’s most comic moment. Saver, too, makes Jen a conflicted young woman trying to stand up for herself and not let the past weigh her down and influence her. It’s beautiful work.
Macy could come across harshly, especially for Southern audiences who know and have grown up with Dellas and Jims and Jens in their lives. In a tricky role, Sarter gets it just right. Her character may not understand the area and all that is going on, but she does have the capacity to show compassion and potentially find common ground with others unlike her.
Yet the standout is Millard, who makes the most of her superb comedic timing and warm persona. She’s instantly likable, but the actress isn’t afraid to show the thornier, intolerant side of the character, a Southern Baptist. She is nurturing and maternal one moment and blunt the next. Della has her beliefs — and a chip on her shoulder for almost disappearing in her marriage. This is one of Millard’s best performances.
The set is another bang-up one by the pair of Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay. Della’s shop has cakes everywhere and self-help posters on the wall, while Jen and Macy sleep in a room with mounted fish and deer antlers above them. Those are the kinds of touches the New York production missed.
The Cake can be a little soft at times, such as the imaginary sequences with Della on her cooking show and a few too many cutesy moments, yet overall this is timely and entertaining. Brunstetter may have a few questionable selections in her recipe, but ultimately her dessert is edible and bound to be a word-of-mouth success.