The Fall theater season has begun in earnest in the Triangle, and PlayMakers Repertory Company has started its mainstage season right with the regional premiere of Bekah Brunstetter’s new play, The Cake. Brunstetter, who is a writer and co-producer of NBC’s acclaimed This Is Us television series, is a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumna; and The Cake tells a funny and compassionate story of a baker with a big heart and a conservative soul.
The Cake is the first in what looks to be a season of stellar performances that will include Kate Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility, Molière’s Tartuffe, and the holiday classic Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
This past Saturday night, during her preshow greeting to PRC patrons, PlayMakers Rep producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch shared the news that the company has received a magnanimous gift from Joan H. Gillings that not only renames the building in her honor (the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art) but also lays the groundwork for a healthy future for the company’s next 40 years.
PlayMakers‘ 2017-18 season, dubbed “A Season on the Edge,” is “the perfect launching pad for that future,” Benesch stated, and The Cake, written by UNC alum Brunstetter and directed by another UNC alum, Jeffrey Meanza, is the perfect vehicle to launch the season.
The show opens with a Dolly Parton-esque woman named Della (played by Julia Gibson) dominating center stage. Her opening soliloquy not only introduces her, but sets the stage for a tale anchored in conservative, Southern values, doused in a healthy dose of sweet cream and butter and plenty of sugar.
Della is a sweet person — in all possible ways — who dreams of changing the world, one cake at a time. She talks about “following the directions,” a statement that becomes the central theme of the evening’s four-person play about values and love and spiritual beliefs.
With her blond curls bobbing, Della talks about cake-baking as her life’s work, and holds forth on her philosophy with one-liners that are well worth repeating (i.e., “You got to follow the directions if you want a cake you can take a nap in …”). She is the queen in her little world of Della’s Sweets and quite content there until Macy, a writer from Brooklyn (Christine Mirzayan), arrives in the shop with a totally different world view.
Macy, who represents of the other side of the political aisle, is a true liberal in an almost laughable sense. Sugar is an addiction, gluten is poison, and cakes are an unnecessary evil. She raises an eyebrow when Della points out that “There’s still a whole lot of goodness in the world.”
One laughs knowingly at Della’s attempts to maintain a mannerly conversation, responding to Macy’s caustic remarks with “That’s nice …” or a tentative “Well …,” because the stereotypes work.
Both characters are blessed with great writing and deliver their lines impeccably: Gibson with pregnant pauses when she responds with “Oh, interesting …,” though we know she has no clue what Macy is talking about; Mirzayan with a rapid-fire sarcasm when she states “Ambivalence is just as evil as violence.”
But the story turns on its head when Jen (Jenny Latimer) arrives. She’s a girl who needs a cake, because she’s about to get married. Within moments, the audience realizes several pertinent facts about Jen: she’s Della’s bestfriend’s daughter, Jen’s mom passed away five years earlier, and the person Jen’s marrying is Macy.
The final pertinent fact reveals itself in waves: Della doesn’t believe in same-sex marriages; and though she initially says she’ll make the cake, she must recognize her own discomfort in doing so and, ultimately, stands by her own conservative beliefs.
Those instructions Della feels she must follow to a T continue to plague her as she struggles with her love for Jen and her own marital problems. She is a strongly religious woman who puts Jesus above all else, yet she is a human being with needs that aren’t being met by her plumber husband, Tim (Derrick Ivey).
The internal battle that Della fights is one that is not easily defined. It’s not a black-and-white fight, but rather a competition for a gray area where Della can feel comfortable with her own beliefs while not hurting anyone else. She is a big-hearted woman, with dreams of making it to ABC’s Great American Baking Show. There is nothing in her demeanor that is cruel or hurtful. She is simply trying to be true to her own beliefs.
The four actors in this production are superb in their roles, each relying on a sense of timing necessary to deliver lines that are both funny and thought provoking. In one scene, Jen talks about being judged and “on stage” and “naked/exposed” about her own sexuality. The internal battle that she wages about her love for Macy, and wanting to be part of a couple, versus her discomfort about being judged for her choices, is voiced simply; and without revealing her whole life story, she shows that the loss of her mother actually gave her the freedom to make her own choices. As Della points out, Jen’s mother would have been broken-hearted had she known of her daughter’s love choice.
The depth of the characters is linked both to the strong writing as well as to the actors’ ability to peel back the layers. Julia Gibson’s Della is multilayered and lovable, even if one doesn’t agree with her inability to accept the gay lifestyle. Gibson is an adept actress who has a well-rounded background; and she delivers Della as a person who’s just as sweet and innocent as her cakes, but there’s another layer to her that makes her interesting.
Derrick Ivey’s Tim is a bumbling man who loves his wife but maintains the blue-collar worker stereotype. Jenny Latimer’s Jen loves Della as much as she did her own mother and understands Della’s biblical beliefs, yet she wants nothing more than to be happy with the person she loves — and, ultimately, she’ll pursue that happiness, even though it might force her away from the home and values with which she was raised. And Christine Mirzayan’s Macy is the stereotypical fast-talking New Yorker who might never be softened by the Southern philosophies against which she fights so strenuously, but she eventually comes to see that sweetness isn’t necessarily all bad.
With a season-opener like this one, PlayMakers Repertory Company is going to set a high bar for the rest of its 2017-18 season! The Cake runs through Oct. 1st.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 17th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/09/playmakers-repetory-companys-production-of-the-cake-is-a-sweet-slice-of-life-that-delicately-tackles-tough-issues/; Sept. 15th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by David Menconi: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article173563651.html, Sept. 14th preview by David Menconi and Lynn Bonner: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article173266941.html, and Sept. 13th preview by David Menconi: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article173079116.html; Sept. 13th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by David Menconi: http://www.heraldsun.com/entertainment/performing-arts/article173086231.html; Sept. 13th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-cake/Event?oid=7493170; Sept. 7th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with playwright Bekah Brunstetter, director Jeff Meanza, and UNC law professor Michael Gerhardt, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/who-gets-have-cake-and-eat-it-too#stream/0; July 6th Chicago, IL People’s World preview by Eric A. Gordon: http://www.peoplesworld.org/article/to-bake-or-not-to-bake-the-cake-takes-on-religious-liberty/; June 28th Los Angeles, CA Los Angeles Times preview by Daryl H. Miller: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-bekah-brunstetter-20170628-story.html and June 21st preview by Deborah Vankin: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-cm-debra-jo-rupp-20170622-story.html; March 20th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) interview with playwright Bekah Brunstetter, conducted by Molly Horak: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2017/03/qa-with-unc-graduate-and-this-is-us-writer-bekah-brunstetter. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 13th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/09/faith-and-family-collide-in-bekah-brunstetters-ripped-from-the-headlines-drama-the-cake/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents THE CAKE at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19 Community Night, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20-22, 2 p.m. Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26-29, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30, and 2 p.m. Oct. 1 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15-$57 ($10 UNC students with photo ID), except $15 general admission on Community Night (Tuesday, Sept. 19th).
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/show/the-cake/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1677851012247961/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al1nX25Gza0 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QIOuxzlDyQ.
PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/jeff-meanza-returns/.
2017-18 SEASON: https://playmakersrep.org/season/2017-2018-season/
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 19th.
NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24th, performances.
NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30th (for more information, click here).
Bekah Brunstetter (Winston-Salem, NC-born Los Angeles, CA playwright): http://blog.bekahbrunstetter.com/ (official website), http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsB/brunstetter-bekah.html (Doollee.com: The Playwrights Database ), https://www.playscripts.com/playwrights/bios/706 (Playscripts, Inc. bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/48553 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5110063/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/bekah.brunstetter (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/funstetter (Twitter page).
Jeffrey Meanza (Minneapolis, MN director): http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/jeffrey-meanza/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3201760/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/meanza (Facebook page).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.