Dallas — It’s a rare treat when a show can manage to tackle the political and the personal without sacrificing either the message or compelling characterization. By that measure, Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake is a sweet, well-balanced confection indeed, and Uptown Players’ production from director Cheryl Denson has managed to combine all the ingredients for a hit show—a sharp, witty script, a phenomenal cast, and a gorgeously realized set—into a Pinterest-worthy masterpiece.
Originally produced in 2017, the political questions swirling around a baker who refuses to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple remain distressingly relevant, although the Supreme Court handed a narrowly defined victory to the baker in the real-life case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that inspired this piece. Brunstetter (a playwright and television writer, and current co-producer on This Is Us) herself has a personal stake in this issue; her father, former North Carolina Senator Peter Brunstetter, championed the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011, which explicitly defined marriage as limited to between a man and a woman, and Brunstetter has stated in numerous interviews that the play was her attempt to square her conservative Southern parents’ views on LGBT rights with her experience of them as loving, compassionate people.
Enter Della (Shannon McGrann), the vivacious, down-home owner of a bakery in North Carolina, whose dreams are about to come true: she’s been chosen as a contestant on the next season of The Great American Baking Show (spun off from Britain’s The Great British Bake-Off, of which Della has, of course, seen every episode: “It’s my sports.” Interrupting her idyll is a new customer, Macy (Sky Williams), whose gluten-and-sugar-free Brooklynity and strident political opinions clash with Della’s attempts at small-talk. And what is a freelance Jezebel writer from NYC doing in a North Carolina bakery? Waiting for her fiancée Jen (Natalie Young), an ex-pat Southern girl who’s come home to fulfill her mother’s dying wish that she be married at the same place as her parents. And who better than her mother’s best friend and Jen’s surrogate mother Della to bake the wedding cake? Della, shocked by Jen marrying a woman, refuses, with a flimsy excuse about being too busy, which both Macy and Jen see through.
As the play continues, Della agonizes over her decision, and is forced to face some hard truths not only about herself, but about her marriage with high-school sweetheart Tim (Sonny Franks), while Jen struggles to balance her desire to live her truth with her conservative upbringing. In the end, both women must face whether love and empathy trump ideology in a play that’s both uproariously funny and sweetly grounded. In the end, can we love our families, made and found, even if we can’t love their choices?
The only way the play can work is if the audience, despite all her flaws, can love Della, and McGrann makes it almost too easy—from the moment the play began, she had the audience in the palm of her hand. McGrann melts into the role, embodying not only Della’s big heart, but her sharper edges, her anger and despair. She’s incredibly funny and totally fearless and is absolutely one of the best actresses the local theater scene has going.
But the embarrassment of riches doesn’t end there. Williams brings a warmth to Macy that the character needs, lest the stridency of her political opinions alienate the audience: “Ambivalence is just as evil as violence,” she fires at Della in their initial conversation. But there’s a weariness underneath it all, a sense of a million small battles waged before this one; her face as Della blusters excuses for not making the cake is clear as glass—clearly, this is exactly what she expected would happen, but she’s still disappointed. Her chemistry with Young’s Jen is subtle, but lovely, and the two actresses are incredibly comfortable with one another physically. Young manages to be both heartbreakingly vulnerable and funny at the same time. The sci-fi aspects of a monologue about her earliest conception of sex provoked laughter, but Young subtly conveyed Jen’s discomfort, her trauma, really, around sex with male partners, and a later climactic discussion with Macy about feeling torn between her roots and her identity in the present felt achingly realistic.
Regular Uptown player Sonny Franks had less stage time as Della’s gruff husband Tim, but makes the most of it, expressing his disgust with Jen’s “life choices” with a dismissive sense of his own righteousness. But Franks also shows the cracks in Tim’s façade as Della questions not only their opinions on homosexuality, but their own sexless marriage; a scene in which Tim rejects an amorous Della in her bakery is as painful to watch as Tim’s later attempt to make amends via food-related seduction is hilarious.
You’d expect a play set in a bakery to be visually delicious and set designer Dennis Cartwright delivers—Della’s shop is a beautiful jewel case for the gorgeous array of cakes and cookies on display. But the surprise element is the use of the Kalita’s turntable, which moves the action from the shop to one of two homes, expressed simply with two beds, one in Della and Tim’s home and the other in the family home where Jen and Macy are crashing. The sound and lighting design (via Marco Salinas and Amanda West) keep things simple for the most part, but works to seamless effect when Della, in several meta-theatrical moments envisions herself in the limelight presenting on her reality baking show to sexy British host George (voice credit to Rob Young), whose interactions with Della grow ever more surreal as the play wears on. Suzanne Cranford’s costumes are pitch-perfect, from Della’s sensible skirts and blouses (and fantastic wig, kudos to hair/wig/makeup designer Coy Covington) to Macy’s chic take on a sort of Earth Mother-vibe to the gorgeous costumes sported by Jen and Macy in the play’s closing moments.
It’d be a shame to miss a delicacy that’s both sweet and layered—don’t pass up your chance to get a slice.