Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's well-made 'The Cake' a treat thanks to Howard
"The Cake" -- ★ ★ ★
In her "ripped from the headlines" dramedy "The Cake," playwright Bekah Brunstetter makes the hot-button topic of same-sex marriage digestible by turning down the heat.
For the most part, Brunstetter ("This Is Us") resists stereotyping same-sex marriage opponents and supporters. Instead, she creates flawed but sympathetic characters whose disagreements are accompanied by tears not invectives. That may be the most commendable thing about this examination of faith, love and evolving perspectives currently at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, whose production follows Rivendell Theatre's 2018 Midwest premiere. However warm and well-intentioned it is, "The Cake" -- about a North Carolina baker's refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple -- is a play whose parts are better than the dramedy as a whole.
The play echoes a 2018 Supreme Court case involving a Colorado baker who cited his religious beliefs when he refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The couple complained to the state's civil rights commission, claiming discrimination. The commission ruled in the couple's favor, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling, finding the commission had been hostile to religion based on statements by a commission member.
In BTE's revival of "The Cake," some of the best moments come courtesy of artistic director Connie Canaday Howard as chipper, conservative Christian cake maker Della, whose celebrated confections come from precisely following directions.
Time and obedience, she says -- tacitly referring to pursuits other than baking -- "that's the only way you'll get that taste."
Out-of-town customer Macy (Raina Lynn) disagrees. A progressive lesbian from Brooklyn whose sugar-free, gluten-free diet prohibits cake, Macy is the pessimist to Della's optimist, the agitator to Della's conformist.
As it happens, they have someone in common. She is Jen (Lisa Dawn), the daughter of Della's deceased best friend. Jen returns to her hometown to announce her pending marriage and enlist surrogate mother Della to bake the wedding cake. Della is delighted, until she learns Jen's intended is a woman.
Howard's expression -- a kaleidoscope of affection, disbelief, shock and heartbreak -- reveals the profound turmoil Jen's news causes. Equally telling is Jen's cautiously hopeful expression that Della will accept her and Macy. In this unspoken, bittersweet exchange, both women recognize the beginning of the end of their lifelong friendship as a heartbroken Della declines, citing her religious beliefs. Jen, equally heartbroken, accepts her decision, angering Macy.
"People need to know that kind of hate still exists down here," she says, adding "I don't respect these people."
"I'm one of them," says Jen, revealing her ongoing struggle to reconcile the values of her youth with who she is.
Della shares Jen's request with her husband, Tim (Bryan Burke), prompting the baker -- self-aware enough to perceive her own bigotry -- to question her decision. Tim however, remains steadfast.
"We can't pick and choose the Bible, honey. That's when the edges start to blur. Fabric starts to fray," he says, adding "we can love her, still."
"The Cake" has a gentle humor that partly makes up for a narrative that tends to be a bit schematic. Fantasy sequences involving a reality TV cooking show for which Della is under consideration sidetrack the narrative. And frankly, the relationship between polar opposites Jen and Macy feels contrived.
That said, the acting in director Steve Scott's production is solid throughout, with the scenes between Howard and Dawn especially moving and transcending. In fact, Scott's delicately staged production is at its best during those wrenching, intimate moments where Brunstetter's imperfect characters reveal their true selves.
But the tastiest moments come courtesy of Howard. Returning to the BTE stage after a three-year absence, she delivers a heartfelt, convincing performance as a woman who, having spent her life adhering to recipes, begins to consider tweaking her baked-in beliefs.
• • •
Location: Playhouse Theater at the McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-4000 or atthemac.org/buffalo- theatre-ensemble
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through March 1
Running time: About 1 hour 45 minutes, with no intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot
Rating: For teens and older; contains adult subject matter and language