Arts theater review

‘The Cake’: slow to bake, but layered with sweetness 

This show leaves you feeling fresh out of the oven

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Karen MacDonald plays Della in a recent production of ‘The Cake’ at The Lyric Stage Company.
Courtesy of Mark S. Howard

The Cake
Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Courtney O’Connor
The Lyric Stage Company
Jan. 10–Feb. 9

A spotlight falls on a darkened set. A baker emerges with a whisk and a smile.

“See, what you have to do is really, truly follow the directions.”

And so the stage is set for Bekah Brunstetter's The Cake, currently playing at The Lyric Stage Company. Fans of the NBC series This is Us will recognize Brunstetter’s dramatic cadence reminiscent of the family dynamics of the show. The story follows Della, owner of Della’s Sweets, as she welcomes back Jen, the daughter of her late friend who has returned to her hometown in North Carolina for her wedding. Della’s excitement is soon soured when she discovers that Jen will be marrying a woman.

It's been nearly a decade since the events that inspired the play and yet the atmosphere feels as ripe for debate as ever. In 2012, a cakeshop in Colorado denied a same-sex couple a wedding cake over Christian marriage beliefs, leading to a complaint that eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court. While the court ultimately ruled in favor of the cake store owner, there is still ambiguity as to whether businesses can deny service to gay couples. 

Likewise, the characters dance in circles as Della (Karen MacDonald), attempts to accept Jen’s choices, and as Jen struggles to reconcile her Southern childhood with her new life. Her fiancée Macy (Kris Sidberry), an ultra-liberal East Coast journalist, tries to convince Jen to leave her past behind, drawing attention to the trauma resurfaced by her conversations with Della. The tension between her two very different worlds builds as Jen attempts to stop making excuses for herself. 

While the play covers heavy topics, there are several moments that bring a lightness to the stage. Della’s husband Tim (Fred Sullivan Jr.) embodies the comic relief for many scenes, from his single-track appetite to his gruff attempts to please his wife. Likewise, Della’s explorations of her sexuality during her fantasy appearances on The Big American Bake-Off are played for laughs as much as for revealing her inner turmoil. As she tries to understand Jen’s needs, she comes to face with her own marriage and the question of what love can even mean. 

Even audience members who may wholeheartedly disagree with Della’s perspectives will be drawn to her confusion and disappointment. The play doesn’t give her any excuses for her discriminatory behavior, but it does give her a fair characterization. She’s no one-dimensional Paula Deen — she tries her best to understand Jen, but even her love has its boundaries. 

While the dialogue was stiff at some points, the execution was pulled off with terrific energy by the cast. MacDonald, a seasoned actor with the Huntington Theater Company and the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, pulls off an emotionally complex performance that leaves even the most progressive audience members empathetic to Della’s world. Likewise, while Sidberry’s character doesn’t have as many opportunities to demonstrate the many layers to her personality, she manages to portray the growth of her character over the course of the show. The play opens with Macy interrogating Della on the integrity of her baking techniques. Macy, a quick-witted writer who believes that “sugar is more addictive than cocaine” and that food television “fetishizes an industry that's killing hundreds of thousands of people a year” spends the entirety of her first scene criticizing Della. Macy doesn’t develop too much after that scene — she continues to be the voice of liberal America, trying to convince her fiancée to renounce her Southern upbringing and publicly criticizing Della’s Sweets after Della refuses to bake the couple’s wedding cake. Nevertheless, Sidberry is able to bring forth a range of intensity, from tenderness to disappointment, that shows how her character does eventually come to terms with Della’s perspectives and the fact that sometimes change takes time. 

Inspired by her father’s opposition to same-sex marriage and her own Southern upbringing, Brunstetter presents dialogue that speaks to the trauma of growing up queer in a Christian community. In one scene, Jen continues to suffer from nightmares that she’s going to hell and, as Macy points out, still doubts herself even when she kisses her fiancée. She’s torn in half as she declares that her love — the greatest love that she has ever experienced — was never anything she could have expected. She is unable to reconcile her newfound life with the values that she has grown up with embedded into her psyche, and the dissonance that this causes wracks her more emotionally than she knows how to handle. 

The dialogue does draw close to preachy at points, especially with Macy’s constant insistence on the unfairness of Della’s views. Comparing the multi-layered portrayal of Della — witty, light-hearted, devout, faithful — with the image of bigotry that Macy describes, we can see that there is a clear prejudice at play. Even so, Macy’s own struggles as a queer black woman can be seen as she takes the defensive in her arguments with Della, eventually exploding in a thunderous delivery with Macy accusing Della of harboring an unfounded hatred against her. 

Though the play moves slowly at certain parts, with much of the dialogue consisting of repetitive sequences of Jen excitedly preparing for her wedding and focusing on the disconnect between her different identities, it wraps up nicely with parallel character arcs for each of the women. By the time of the wedding, Della has been through a great ordeal of soul-searching, trying to connect with a Jen she no longer recognizes. Jen finally sets down her boundaries, and Macy is able to see beyond the anger she has for Della’s Southern views. 

Given that the play is performed in Boston, the perspective that’s ultimately taken on the matter of same-sex marriage is predictable. Though there are few moments that lean towards supporting one side more so than another — Della is eventually kicked off her dream baking show and is ravaged by Macy’s readers — the play ultimately gives a fair representation to the sentiments on both sides of the table. Each of the characters makes mistakes, but we are treated with what is ultimately a tender story about listening to one another. We may already know what to expect from the play, but it’s still as sweet as buttercream frosting.