“If cake were free for everybody, there would be a lot less problems in the world.” In fact, or at least so goes Della’s thinking, invite the leaders of ISIS into her cakery – Della’s Sweets in Winston, North Carolina – and a few bites of her butter cream icing might just improve their dispositions for good!
As soon as we meet Della in Bekah Brunstetter’s play, The Cake, it is almost impossible not to fall immediately in love with her, especially when Della is played with such glowing Southern smile, hospitality, and personality by J. J. Van Name in the current New Conservatory Theatre Center production. As she welcomes a note-taking writer named Macy into her gingerbread-house-like shop, Della babbles like a bubbling brook about cooking only from scratch, about always following a recipe’s directions, and about not worrying if her ingredients are organic or if her eggs “were ever caged or ever been to the movies.”
For both Macy and us, it becomes easy to believe Della’s confession as she pauses to catch her breath and reflect, “Sometimes when I talk about my cakes, I think I leave my body.” Macy may be a scowling skeptic of the attractiveness of Della’s pink-lemonade cake as she tells Della she that does not do sugar or gluten and certainly does not eat cake (to which Della replies, “Then where do you get your pleasure from?”) However, for the rest of us, J.J. Van Name’s Della is already a delicious morsel that we just want to continue to savor even after just a few bites of her Southern, kitchen-based philosophies on life.
And that is one of the key ingredients of the playwright’s script: Upfront we get to see and know a side of Della that makes us wish we could walk into her shop and have a piece of her foot-high cakes while whiling away the day with her. We are ready to cheer her on as a selected contestant in CBS’s upcoming Great American Baking Show, hoping she will win the first prize of $20,000 “and a really big biscuit”. We may understand the skepticism that Macy voices about all the current, anti-sugar research; but how can anyone resist Della and her scrumptious-looking cakes?
But there is another side of Della we are about to see. When Jen enters to Della’s shrieks of joy, all at first seems hunky-dory as the two have a big-hug reunion – Jen (“Jenny Penny” to Della) being the daughter of Della’s best, now-deceased friend, Debra, and a twenty-something who grew up in Winston with Della being like family. Jen is now in New York and has come home (just as her momma would have wanted) to get married and to ask Della to make her a wedding cake. Della is ecstatic until African-American and female Macy – who has been standing in the corner largely ignored by both Della and Jen – announces to Della there is no ‘he’ as the groom-to-be, only herself as the ‘she’ who will be marrying Jen.
Suddenly Bekah Brunstetter’s tightly written, fast-paced, ninety-minute play steps from Southern comedy into current headlines involving LGBTQ equality, so-called religious rights, and the Supreme Court. As much as she loves her Jen, Della’s immediate reaction to Macy’s announcement – after Della’s shocked, open, silent mouth finally closes – is to look with nervous fumbles at her calendar and to tell Jen what Jen is already sure is coming: Her schedule is booked for the entire month, and there is no way she can bake the wedding cake of the girl who is almost like her daughter.
For Della, Jen, and Macy, that decision spurs a series of internal and external events that begin to spin out-of-control. For many of us from this ultra-liberal city of San Francisco sitting in a theatre renowned for its LGBTQ programming, we are ready now to judge Della in the harshest of terms. We also may even side with Macy who wants to leave with Jen from what she sees as a clearly bigoted town and head somewhere else for their wedding.
But Bekah Brunstetter – a playwright whom herself grew up in the South and faced her own family rejections for her sexual orientation – has other intentions for us. She is going to ensure that we sit awhile longer in the mess just created, explore other sides of each character, and witness their struggles while we ask ourselves, “Must all issues today always only be black and white in nature?”
While J.J. Van Name as Della is hands-down the focal star of the show, the other three members each are stellar in their own ways. As Jen, Jensen Power gives us a first impression of a young woman who is still almost a girl in her cheerleader-like enthusiasm, her high-pitched voice with its soft drawl, and her generally starry-eyed nature. If it is true opposites attract, then Asia Jackson’s Macy must be surely her intended; for Macy is at first glance reserved; realistic to the point of almost harshness; and clearly feeling out of place in the so-white, so-Southern, too-sweet atmosphere of Della’s shop. Put the two together, and we believe the sparks of physical attraction and their stated love. On the other hand, we also see that the Southern heritage that Jen still loves and maybe even longs for up there in New York is raising alarms for both her and Macy and putting new strains on them as a couple once Della says she cannot bake their cake.
Completing the cast and serving as part of Della’s own relationship tremors is Dixon Phillips as Della’s plumber husband, Tim – a man of few words but strong surety of what is right and natural when it comes to God, marriage, and a man/woman relationship. As Della wrestles with her decision not to bake based on her Bible-based beliefs, things she is missing in her own life become much clearer; and they involve the husband she adores. Tim too has unspoken doubts, shames, and fears that center on himself but have big implications for Della and what she wants and needs. Somehow, a decision not to bake a cake causes the long-ignored pot on the stove of their lives to boil over for both him and her.
Along with the playwright’s script, Tracy Ward’s direction of this fine cast does not let us smugly dismiss opinions with which we may disagree. We are forced to see each of these people as individuals who may be more like us and like each other in ways none of us or them want to admit. We also realize that resolution of strongly felt differences cannot come just by dictation of the Bible, the Court, the Congress, or our own deeply held set of morals. The director ensures we are drawn enough into these characters’ struggles that we cannot make snap decisions of who is totally right and who is totally wrong.
Carlos Aceves has designed a cake shop its own icing that drips with a Southern lady’s touches. The heart-shaped counter full of confectionaries and the cute, cafe booth both turn to become the bedrooms of our two couples. Tom O’Brien has outdone himself as props designer in creating cakes that one wants to sample and at least one that is real enough to become part of a baker’s worst dilemma. Della is delightfully covered in everything from cupcakes to huge blossoms, thanks to just a portion of Joanne Martin’s costume designs. Molly Stewart-Cohn’s lighting and Kalon Thibodeaux’s sound designs are especially effective in turning Della’s dreams about being in the TV baking contest increasingly into nightmares – the result being funny to us but not at all for poor Della.
This regional premiere of The Cake at New Conservatory Theatre Center is not just an offering of sugary fluff and fun. Bekah Brunstetter serves us a main course that is thoughtful and touching, heartbreaking and heart-warming, alluring and awakening. Come ready not only to be entertained but also to be challenged and to leave maybe a bit changed when it comes to viewing people who have beliefs and practices different from ourselves.
Rating: 5 E
The Cake continues through December 1, 2019 on the Walker Stage of of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.
Photos by Lois Tema