‘The Cake’ at Farmers Alley a powerful story ripped from the headlines and the SCOTUS docket
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–It takes brave actors to bare their souls and bodies on stage and an intelligent playwright to resist easy answers and assumptions to modern-day problems. It is that courage and perspicacity that makes The Cake at Farmers Alley Theatre a memorable production that is compelling and enjoyable.
Playwright Bekah Brunstetter rips the shows premise straight out of today’s headlines. She mixes in a reality baking show, religious resistance to LGBT+ relationships, and the refusal to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage into a story that tackles difficult questions about love, intimacy, sex and tolerance.
While it might be easiest to keep the perspective on the lesbian couple who wants the cake, Brunstetter’s spotlight most often falls on Della, the owner of a North Carolina bakery who takes pride in following the directions perfectly to create the best cakes.
Director D. Terry Williams leads his cast of four actors in finding the depth of each of their characters and putting the focus on the relationships each of them have with each other.
Zoe Vonder Haar makes Della a sympathetic character, even to an audience whose natural inclinations go against what she stands for and who finds the things she does abhorrent. Haar conquers each of the demands that this show puts on her character—the many monologues, the emotional swings, the complexities of her choices and the intensities of her relationships with each of the other three characters.
Tia Pinson’s Macy is first presented as the stereotypical hipster with militantly progressive ideals that have no room for the people who don’t march in step with them. However, Macy’s impatience with those who would invalidate her or her way of life covers a vulnerability that Pinson carefully reveals.
Molly Spiroff brings energy and enthusiasm to Jen, a young woman returning to her home in the South and the people she loves even though she no longer fits among them. All the other characters have descriptors for Jen and Spiroff manages to master each of them. She is sensitive, loving, and full of life. She also has her own yearnings and things she wants to make right, things that don’t let her walk away easily from the world that won’t accept who she is now.
Spiroff and Pinson raise the stakes of the story by the relationship they portray. If love could be given a physical form and representation on stage, it would look like what they do. They have those special eyes only for each other, their connection smolders and they give their characters a deep commitment to each other that is able to withstand the conflict that they face.
It would be easy for Steve Isom to make Tim, Della’s husband, a redneck plumber who is oblivious to the struggles his wife his having. In fact, there are moments when Tim does seem to be out-of-step and simple compared to the others on the stage, but that doesn’t last for long and Isom ensures that the audience is able to look at things through his eyes, if only for a moment.
It is clear that Isom and Haar have worked together before, as they convincingly portray a husband and wife couple who have faced challenging hardships together. They both show great courage and comedic timing in performing what the script demands of them—and in so doing, give the audience highly memorable moments.
Williams brought in Elizabeth Terrel as an intimacy director to work with Spiroff and Pinson on safely and effectively portraying the physical aspects of their relationship. It was an investment that paid off in the intensity of their connection. Their relationship felt so natural and right, despite how the opponents of same-sex relationships would say they are the opposite of those two adjectives, that the audience seemed to comfortably accept their physical intimacy.
What provoked nervous laughter and discomfort was the display of intimacy and sex between the older couple, perhaps because sex between older people is often portrayed only for comic effect and not show with the real challenges that The Cake explores.
What makes Della’s refusal to bake the cake a story that is compelling and interesting is the love that she feels for Jen. This is not a stranger she is rejecting, but someone whom she always figured she would bake for. Jen is the daughter of her late best friend. She watched her grow up and they stay in touch through emails and Facebook. They know each other well.
It is what keeps the show from being just a political shouting match or one that simply mocks a person for refusing to bake a cake for a customer.
The cake becomes a metaphor that casts light on each of the characters and who they are. Della believes in the classic recipes, in following directions that have been passed down through the ages, just as she believes in using the Bible as an instruction book on life. Macy refuses to even taste the cake, she won’t give in to the slightest challenge to her diet, to her beliefs, to her ardent pursuit of what she believes to be right. Jen loves the cake and the joys and memories it brings her even when it casts shame into her life that she doesn’t know what to do with. Tim loves it because he loves his wife, but he isn’t prepared for some of the ways it might challenge him.
All of these characters are fully flushed out with complex motivations, which is what makes this play so very satisfying. And even though it deals with serious topics, it is often a comedy, one that brings the type of laughter that signifies pure joy and the understanding and empathy of the crazy situations we back ourselves into by the beliefs we hold on to.
As always, Farmers Alley doesn’t stint at the technical staff and all of them contribute to the delectable treat this show is. Props designer Jody Badalamenti creates a wall full of gorgeous cakes, some fake, some real. Scenic designer Dan Guyette and scenic artist Alexa Wiljanen capture the sugary sweetness of a bakery while providing quick and easy drop-out beds to take the scenes to each of the couples’ bedrooms.
Kristen Chesak’s lighting puts appropriate spotlights on Della, especially when she is fantasizing about the reality cooking show she has been selected to appear on. She partners with sound designer Tony Mitchell to create a peek into Della’s mind and perhaps even how she views the authorities that direct her life.
The Cake is more than just a fancy dessert that entertains and delights. It is a show that, like the special occasion cakes that mark people’s lives, attempts to bring people together and help them move toward a greater understanding.