The Contemporary American Theatre Festival is off to a rocking start, and with the local premiere of Bekah Brunstetter’s ripped-from-the-Supreme-Court-blotter comedy The Cake, the Festival makes a statement about the heated debates that consume us all – the tension between tradition and the shock of the new. Brunstetter, who might be better known as the Supervising Producer for This Is Us, advises us to put our hearts on our sleeves, listen to each other earnestly and actively, and give each other room to breathe and grow. And in this production, directed ably by Courtney Sale, we are offered both a path forward and a reason to step back and reflect.
The show opens as Della, a master of the art of baked sweets, rehearses for her dream gig—a spot as a contestant on a nationally-syndicated bake-off show. As she ices a cake with the touch of a Mary Cassatt, she looks you in the eye and lays out the philosophy of her life’s work:
“See, what you have to do is really, truly, follow the directions.”
Of course, as we shall soon see it’s not just recipes Della is talking about. And as becomes crystal clear within minutes of this hilarious opening monologue, the challenge isn’t so much the recipe for cake as the recipe for life.
Into this little corner of paradise enters Macy, a young African-American from up north (to be precise-Brooklyn), and in a blunt, condescending dialogue-cum-confrontation she does her best to reduce Della to a stereotypical corporate shill, out to kill humanity with her sugar and her gluten-filled poison cakes. Della, not accustomed to this kind of Yankee attitude, does her best to retain her balance and her sunny disposition. Her ability to do so, in the face of a relentless holier-than-thou progressive, is impressive, to say the least.
One of Brunstetter’s many talents is her ability to turn the mirror onto her theatre-going audience—largely liberal, largely hip to the latest in dietary trends—and remind us just how strange we look to our more tradition-bound neighbors. It’s always the other folks who are blind to reality, always folks like Della who are out of touch and who lack empathy; how unsettling to realize that we accuse them of attitudes we constantly indulge in ourselves.
As Macy’s confrontation wraps up we meet her fiancée Jen, who grew up in this town and whose recently-deceased mom was Della’s best friend. Della is like a mother to Jen, and the joy of their reunion is tested by the realization that Macy—the rude, self-righteous, sweets-hating Macy—is the love of Jen’s life. It quickly becomes clear that Jen’s wish to have Della bake the cake for her and Macy’s wedding will be problematic. Ever the polite Southerner, Della finds a way to deflect Jen’s request without saying “no” – and so the battle is engaged.
As Della, North Carolina’s reigning queen of confections, Erika Rolfsrud exudes all the southern charm, generosity and anxiety of our God-fearing neighbors, whose grasp of eternal verities is constantly being challenged by the changes breaking all around them. We know folks like Della, and we’re conditioned by our social media news feeds to despise her for her conservative social values. Brunstetter is having none of our internet-fueled rage, and our mania for instant moral gratification; she demands that we respect those who are still reeling from the changes we seek and look for ways to guide each other towards a more tolerant, brand-new status quo.
The somewhat-happy couple, Macy and Jen, are given a charming turn by Monet and Kelly Gibson. Monet—whose brilliant turn as Samira in C. A. Johnson’s drama Thirst is reviewed elsewhere here – has all the self-assurance and self-righteousness that gives traditionalists the creeps. Macy is well aware of the attitudes with which she is surrounded in the South, and perhaps her blunt manner is her way of pre-rejecting people whom she assumes would just reject her anyway. Gibson, meanwhile, exudes all the cock-eyed optimism of Della, and the desire instilled in every daughter of the South to please everyone. Gibson’s Jen longs for a world in which everyone just gets along and accepts each other. A big part of the character’s journey is the realization that there is a gap between her desire and its fulfillment. Gibson covers this treacherous territory with great empathy.
If there were an award for comic actor in a supporting role at this festival it would have to go to Lee Sellars, who plays Jim – Della’s plumber-husband. Played here with all the gruff, matter-of-fact demeanor one would expect from a housing contractor (I was one once) Sellers’ Jim has the sort of cheerful indifference to life’s challenges that comes with decades of snaking out toilets and sweating pipe. Like many guys, however, he’s out of his depth when it comes to fathoming his wife; but his willingness to humor her is touching. And in what is hands-down the laugh riot of the summer, we get to watch as first Della and then Jim try, each in their own awkward way, to put a little spark back in the marriage. (Hint: you’ll never look at mashed potatoes the same way ever again.)
Therese Bruck has created a great ensemble of costumes, giving one actor the illusion of extra bulk, another the illusion of less, but hitting the mark for every character. It’s not just that she comes up with great wedding duds for Macy and Jen, she nails the colors and textures of everyday wear as well. And Scenic Designer David M. Barber makes good use of the Frank Center stage’s depth, as D. M. Wood’s lighting shifts with ease from Della’s shop to her bedroom across town—as well as Jen’s childhood home.
The Cake is about as relevant and heartfelt a play as you’re likely to see this summer. Finely crafted, brilliantly acted, and funny as all get-out, it’s just one more reason to include Shepherdstown and the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in your travels this month.
Running Time: 100 minutes without intermission.