Julia Gibson as Della
Julia Gibson as Della
Photo by Lynn Lane

Swathed in Buttercream, The Cake Balances Religious Rights With Same Sex Marriage

Workshopped last year at the Alley All New Festival, Bekah Brunstetter's warm, somewhat fragrant The Cake is certifiably ripped-from-today's-headlines. How timely is it? So prescient that its impact is already muted.

On Monday, June 4, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Christian Colorado baker who refused on religious grounds to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. He sold his sweetmeats to everyone, GLBTQ included, but drew the line at same-sex marriage. The ruling faulted Colorado's Civil Rights Commission for its hostile bias against the baker, not the broader implications of sex discrimination and equal rights. The case of a Washington florist, a Southern Baptist, who refused to supply flowers to a same-sex couple's wedding, may be heard before the court this year, and this lawsuit is expected to clarify if not augment and bring closure to the Court's recent landmark ruling.

Brunstetter distills the Colorado case into pleasant generalities. She makes it personal, if a trifle diffuse. There are no great surprises, no dramatic reveals, some laughs. And the character you expect to receive a lashing only needs a little lovin'.

Homespun, devout Christian baker Della (peppy and sweet Julia Gibson, think drawling Paula Dean without racial bias), refuses to bake the wedding cake for her dead best friend's daughter Jen (Elizabeth Stahlmann), whom she loves as if she were her own. Jen has returned to her North Carolina hometown with black girlfriend Macy (Candice D'Meza), and her lesbianism smacks Della as if Jen had poured vinegar into the frosting.

As much as she loves Jen, Della can't reconcile her staunch faith with something she truly believes is fundamentally wrong. She fumbles feebly for an excuse not to bake the cake, but nobody believes her stalling tactics. When she answers Jen's gnawing question of what would her mother think of her marriage, Della tells her flatly that, She would be ashamed. Della's blunt honesty severs the relationship and sends Jen into severe self-doubt.

Everyone has doubts, and they're played against each other in alternating fashion.

Della may be the best baker in town and a contestant on a reality cooking show, but her marriage is loveless and she's taken for granted by schlub plumber husband Tim (Michael Pemberton). (The scenes with James Black as smarmy unseen TV host, dripping clotted cream exhortations to Della to produce culinary masterpieces, are the show's highlights.) Della and Tim have cuddled for years, but Della wants sex. She wants the same connection that has spurred Jen's happiness. After hours, she morphs into a bakeshop Lorelei, comically tempting Tim with buttercream eroticism. Mortified by his wife's rampant libido, Tim brusquely curtails the seduction and confesses his own masculine doubts and failings before rushing off to the macho safety of home.

Raised in the South, Jen's never been entirely content in the liberal north. “I'm split in two,” she declares, with a whiff of self-congratulation and a bit too didactic. She's in love for the first time in her life, really in love, but the ghost of her dead mother is a powerful lure to return to convention, propriety, “normalcy.” Carolina will always be part of her, she can't deny it or fight against it, even if it means losing Macy. Stahlmann, lean and angular with a look like a young Julia Roberts, is tightly wound. Skittish and seeming to clasp herself to keep from flying off, she's all nerve endings.

Brunstetter sets up Macy as Jen's polar opposite. Without filters, she says what she thinks and lives by her own Gospel: militant, intransigent, uncompromising, gluten-free. She'll brook no compromise with Red State values. She stands defiant, hands on hips, urban warrior princess done wrong. Yet, she never feels at home anywhere, either. As she states with a buried tinge of regret, she's black, queer, a woman, and an agnostic. Prickly, she sets us on edge from her entrance, and her confrontations with Della and Jen only keep us at a distance. D'Meza loves this ballsy woman, and she fearlessly plays her without a glance in our direction to ask for understanding or sympathy.

The production is Alley handsome, bathed in David Lander's candy-coated lighting and wrapped like icing in Jessica Ford's apt costumes. Della's shop, designed as if its own confection by Clint Ramos, is replete with cake tins, shelves of cookbooks, tart molds, color-coordinated jars of sugar, and heaps of delicious-looking cakes. This has got to be the toniest bake shop west of the Mississippi. The comfy hassock folds out to become Jen and Macy's bedroom; while the upstage shelves open to reveal Della and Tim's bed which glides forward like an automated rack on a Viking oven. (Why the bottom steps are ringed in string lights is a mystery, but it's probably a safety precaution for the actors. It looks like Vegas.)

Although she swathes her play in dialogue that doubles as civics lesson, Brunstetter is nothing but fair and impartial to her characters. For all her implacable beliefs, Della is as sweet and natural as her ingredients. That she can't condone gay marriage isn't depicted as a moral failing as it is blind spot. If redemption is in order, she may come around some day. She's much too pleasant to be a bigot. Even Macy comes around at last, even though we don't believe it. Not even Della's subversively delicious cakes could sweeten her tartness.

But Brunstetter gives us hope, a comfortable glimmer that with more time and plenty of empathy, we might all get along. Love is just around the corner. The flowers will have to wait.

The Cake continues through July 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sunday, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $35-$70.

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