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POWERFUL THEATRE: ‘The Cake’ offers nuanced characters with whom we can all associate

Brunstetter has written a script that dwells in far more ambiguity in “The Cake,” which means the performers have the option to create real people full of contradictions—and this group fully embraces it.

Hannah Elizabeth Smith, Jane McNeill Balter and Lily Nicole star in "The Cake." Photo by James Bowling

Panache Theatrical Productions serves up a wonderful and thoughtful night of theatre with Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake.” Inspired by the bakery in Colorado that refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, the show, set in North Carolina, is a surprisingly human look at decisions in a changing world.

Hannah Elizabeth Smith, Jane McNeill Balter and Lily Nicole star in "The Cake." Photo by James Bowling

Hannah Elizabeth Smith, Jane McNeill Balter and Lily Nicole star in “The Cake.” Photo by James Bowling

We open with Della Brady (Jane McNeill), expounding her vision of baking the perfect cake. Clearly, she knows what she is talking about. The audience has been sitting in the theater, waiting for the show to start, staring at a stage full of cakes … they had to come from somewhere, right? (Disclaimer: There are people who can tell you at a glance where all the alcohol in the building is located; I can do that with desserts.) Well, Della is the baking guru—and she is getting ready to appear on “The Great American Baking Show” as a contestant.

Sitting in her bakery, taking copious notes, is a very attractive young woman, Macy (Lily Nicole). Macy is clearly not from around here. She’s aggressive in her latent nastiness and unbending refusal to accommodate anyone or anybody. She can’t even find a polite way to make small talk. She is every retail or service-industry worker’s irritation: the customer who is incapable of achieving basic human interaction.

Hats off to Nicole! Within seconds I was silently thanking the gods for being born and raised here—because I deal with the likes of Macy on a regular basis. Nicole brings that person to life perfectly.

McNeill’s Della is caught: How can she be polite to a paying customer who insults her and everything she believes in—including gluten, butter and cakes­—while still not denying her own existence? It is tough for anyone brought up with manners to endure. Seriously, I could see McNeill silently running through a list of responses in her head she wouldn’t allow herself to say, starting with, “Why are you in a bakery at all if you hate everything in this building? The door is behind you—you are more than welcome to use it.”

McNeill absolutely brings to life so many of the mothers of my friends growing up: sweet, kind, considerate, far too polite for their own good. The tension between the two women is incredibly uncomfortable to watch; I was squirming constantly. Part of me really wanted McNeill to just snap back verbally; though, I knew she wouldn’t. When Nicole kept refusing cake and cake samples … I mean, damn. You can lead a Yankee to cake, but you can’t make her eat.

Sigh.

Just when Della hits the point she can no longer be polite to the constant, casual self-righteous nastiness, in walks Jen (Hannah Elizabeth Smith), the adult daughter of Della’s deceased best friend. Smith’s Jen is all the excitement and joy of a bride at the beginning stages of wedding-planning. Obviously, she has come to the woman who is her second mother—who she considers part of her family—to make the cake for her most special and important day. All the excitement is infectious, and she and Della are literally bouncing up and down with shared delight. And then it is clear the person Jen is marrying is Macy. The shock almost knocks McNeill to the floor … because Macy is a woman.

Personally, Della would have been justified at the shock of Jen marrying someone who behaves so rudely to family friends. (Actually later on, both Jen and Della do call out Macy on her attitude and behavior.) But the thrust of the show is about gay marriage, not the possible misguided choice to marry someone whose behavior toward people who work for a living is insulting at best. We watch Smith slowly crumple with recognition.

As Macy and Jen try to process this journey they are on and the next steps, Della seeks solace with her husband, Tim (Braxton Lathan Williams), a plumber by trade. Williams reproduces, almost perfectly on stage, my favorite AC repair man.  Now, I have no desire whatsoever to be married to Williams’ Tim. However, what he does beautifully is make Tim a decent, hard-working guy, who really believes the world he lives in is a codified, unchanging existence—and that he has the answers to how it is supposed to look. Part of it does include telling his wife what to do and think. Della is starting to crack. Maybe what Tim says isn’t always right. Though she is prepared to challenge him in private, in public she still presents a united front.

McNeill had me at every turn. It isn’t just this one cake. It’s owning a faltering small business and the strain it puts on marriage. It’s the fractures in your world that become fissures that become cracks. It is all the sense of failures mounted up and wanting something to cling to for reassurance.

It is wanting to be loved. It is wanting to be enough that someone would be proud of you.

Smith and Nicole give us another couple who are processing. What they and we discover is Smith’s Jen really hasn’t faced the ghosts that haunt her inner landscape. This homecoming, though she didn’t admit it to herself or Macy ahead of time, is really about that. These two actresses turn in spectacular performances—possibly the best I have seen either of them give. They engage in a delicate but passionate dance. Possibly part of what makes Nicole’s Macy so button-pushing—and that is a huge compliment to her performance—is I unfortunately agree with so much of what comes out of her mouth. I just cringe and squirm at the way she goes through the world with a broad sword, so convinced of her own righteousness.

Smith, Nicole, Brady and Williams all give us fully realized and complicated people. Audiences walk in the door expecting and wanting each character to be simplified stereotypes, and for the battle they engage in to be loud and clearly defined. Brunstetter has written a script that dwells in far more ambiguity, which means the performers have the option to create real people full of contradictions—and this group fully embraces it. That is what they do. It makes for a much more powerful evening. I think I am not alone in saying I know all the people on stage in my real life, but I see parts of myself in each of them, too.

DETAILS:
The Cake
Through June 23, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.
Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $22-$25
thalianhall.org

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