It would’ve been hard to miss last week’s Supreme Court decision that found the owner of Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop could, indeed, refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his deeply held religious beliefs. The Court’s ruling was narrow, to be sure, but it was still seen as a victory for those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds and a defeat by those who proclaim that love is love.
And it’s impossible to ignore that while watching the Alley’s summer confection that is Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake. The play pits Della (a luminous Julia Gibson), the best baker in a small North Carolina town, against her dead best friend’s daughter, Jen (Elizabeth Sthlmann), who asks her to bake her wedding cake. Della’s onboard up to the minute she learns Jen’s not marrying a man, but a woman—the acerbic Macy (Candice D’Meza).
That kind of set-up could make for a clichéd take on love and equal rights and marriage and religion, but it’s to Brunstetter’s credit that she works to show Della less as a bigot than as a real woman who’s simply never had to confront an issue in reality that she’s always been against in theory. And it’s Della’s struggle and growth that’s way more interesting than anything else.
She’s a woman of a certain age, married to Tim, a man she loves but is no longer intimate with (Michael Pemberton, who gets two good scenes, one of which is so over the top, it’s almost out of place). She’s worked hard to build her bake shop business—so hard, in fact, she’s about to appear on The Great American Baking Show. She has her faith in God. And she is loyal to her friends. Her pastor tells her gay marriage is wrong and she’s never had any reason to question that.
The Cake’s brilliance is that it’s less about where anyone stands on gay marriage and much more where we as a society stand on love. For those of a certain stripe, anyone opposing same-sex marriage for any reason is The Enemy, full stop. For those of a different stripe, same-sex couples wanting to get married are an abomination to their beliefs, despite a Supreme Court ruling saying they are allowed to do so. But The Cake demonstrates that many people live somewhere between those extremes, and struggle and stumble against a world that’s changing faster than they can keep up with.
Gibson’s Della is a delicious delight, sweet Southern accent and all. She stammers and wrestles with this issue and what it means for her—and her business—in seeming real time, in a performance that veers from pondering nuance to I Love Lucy zaniness. Some of Gibson’s best work involves scenes between her and Pemberton’s Tim, the push-pull of their middle-age marriage a sepia-toned counterpart to the technicolor young love between Macy and Jen.
There’s a heartbreaking scene where Della wants to revive her sex life that delivers laughs and winces in equal measure. And when Della finally figures out what side she’s on in this cake debate, it feels real and wrenching. Add to that James Black—on opening night, at least—as the voice of the unseen host of The Great American Baking Show that needles Della as both a baker and a person, and you have an added depth to Della’s evolution.
Stahlmann’s Jen is ferret-like, a bundle of frantic energy, part bride wanting to get everything right, part woman realizing that where’s she from isn’t so far removed from who she is. She chafes as much at Macy’s militant denunciation of her hometown as she does over Della’s inability to bridge the gap between love and religious belief. Meanwhile, D’Meza clearly has solid acting chops, but Macy, as written, is a cliché. When she speaks of being black and lesbian and not belonging to, well, anywhere, the words make sense, intellectually, but the character feels more like Brunstetter needed a big-city polar opposite to further illuminate the issues at play among Della and Jen. Of all the characters in the show, she comes off as the least likable.
Pemberton doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Tim, save be a mostly immovable sounding board for Della as she fights her way through this ordeal, but it’s a likeable performance, and his expression of why he and Della haven’t been intimate in a decade is a vulnerable dramatic spot in a play that often feels much more like a lively rom-com for all its deep discussion.
David Lander’s lighting and Clint Ramos’ set double team to create a production that is, in a word, beautiful. The details in Della’s cake shop—the cookbooks, the kitchen tools, the tiny jars—look like a Main Street cake shop in Small Town, USA.
Premiering in a city that touts itself as more tolerant than overall deep-red Texas, The Cake might rankle some for even attempting to present someone like Della as a sympathetic character. They’d be missing the point, though. Ultimately, The Cake is less about who should be allowed to marry, and much more about how we look for ways to bridge divides and find ways to respect one another.
Thru July 1. Tickets from $35. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.