PlayMakers Repertory Company opened its newest season, a season it has dubbed as “on the edge,” with an appropriately edgy but surprisingly sweet new show, written by Bekah Brunstetter. The show, The Cake, opens on an adorable, detailed bakery set. The bakery is full of delightful cakes and has a checkered floor and splashes of color everywhere, making it appear very welcoming…which is ironic given the “unwelcoming” events that unfold.
Della (Julia Gibson) runs this cozy bakery. In fact, she opens the show with a diatribe on how important it is, when baking, to follow instructions to a tee. Later, the audience will learn, through Brunstetter’s believable, perfectly-paced dialogue that Della feels this way about a great many things in life, including and especially her fundamentalist Christian set of beliefs.
Though Della immediately comes across as naive and somewhat simplistic in the show’s early moments, she is also an instantly likeable character. Brunstetter has written her as the type of woman one meets every day in North Carolina, which is precisely where the play is set, making the story ring true on multiple levels.
Of course, part of Della’s likeability is owed to her portrayal by Julia Gibson. Gibson is bubbling and “southern-sweet” in all the right places, as well as convincingly contemplative and conflicted in others. And, Della’s life, as the story unfolds, certainly is one full of conflict.
Her biggest conflict is set in motion right in front of the audience’s eyes. The daughter of Della’s deceased best friend comes into Della’s shop, requesting that Della make her wedding cake. The only catch is that Jen’s (Jenny Latimer) fiancee is a woman, Macy (Christine Mirzayan). Upon learning this news, Della is faced with the decision of whether or not to make the cake for a wedding she doesn’t believe should be taking place. This decision causes her to question deeply-held beliefs she holds and even to question issues within her own marriage to her husband Tim (Derrick Ivey).
While the play handles heavy topics, it manages to feel, for the most part, as light and airy as the sinful treats that Della bakes. But, with a careful touch, Brunstetter still manages to delve into Southern/Christian culture that, much like Della’s cake, often appears harmless and sweet on the outside but hides a much uglier, more dangerous truth. To be fair, however, her script also explores the hatred and intolerance that those on the other side unknowingly spew as well, making for a story in which there are no villains or no simple definitions of right and wrong, just a hopeful quest to better understand one another.
This thoughtful, moving story is brought to beautiful life by Jeffrey T. Meanza’s careful direction and Jan Chambers’ delicate set. Chambers makes nice use of color on her set, as does Georgia Lee in her costume design. Furthermore, the small cast does a great job of making these vibrantly written characters every bit as vibrant and lovable, in spite of their faults, on the stage as on the page.
Ivey, while given less stage-time than the other members of the cast, never fails to evoke laughter and humor into the show while Latimer is soft and Mirzayan fierce in all the right moments. When the show ends, viewers are left hungry for more about these characters and their lives, though Brunstetter does wrap up her script well; it is only that these characters have been so real and moving that leaves the viewer wanting more…much like one would with any sweet treat that has been devoured all too quickly.