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Theater Review: "The Cake"

Faith Prince as “Della" in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of "The Cake."
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

The times they are a-changin’, sometimes for the better. “The Cake” (at La Jolla Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre through March 4) is Exhibit A, or at least the latest issue-oriented play to hit the local boards.

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter, centers this play on people she knows well: conservative Baptists in North Carolina, among whom she grew up.

We first meet Della (Faith Prince), the town baker, who not only has a cake for all occasions, but actually believes that “if I could just make every person a cake with their name on it, a lot of problems would be solved.”

Della basically lives for baking, and that’s where we find her, in David F. Weiner’s bakery set offering shelves and shelves of scrumptious-looking confections. Her biggest excitement is that she’s to be a contestant on TV’s “The Great American Baking Show.”

The plot revolves around a wedding cake for former resident Jen (Aubrey Dollar), who now lives in New York and is about to marry the love of her life, African American Macy (Miriam A. Hyman).

Jen has dreamed about returning to marry in her hometown and having Della, her late mother’s best friend, make that cake. But she needs to tell Della that there will be two brides at this wedding.

Awkward. Della is a good ole gal, with good ole Baptist beliefs. Her husband Tim (Wayne Duvall) is no help. A plumber and straight-ahead kind of guy, he has attitudes even more hidebound than her own.

But Jen is the daughter of Della’s best friend. What is Della to do? Consulting her calendar gives her an out: No, sorry, plumb full up on that date.

It’s religion vs. gay rights, a plot right out of the headlines: the court case about this very issue was argued in the Supreme Court this session, and we are awaiting their decision.

The play is a bit of a mashup between a social issues piece and a sitcom (an unnecessary fart joke comes immediately to mind). It does seem a bit odd that no one in town seems to object to African American Macy on racial grounds. Macy herself is the one who mentions it: “I’m black and I’m agnostic AND I’m a woman and I’m tall AND I’m queer. I’m in a world that is not designed for me.”

I can identify with the issues here. I grew up in a similar fundamentalist religious tradition, and I too escaped, never to return. It’s difficult for me to even watch this kind of discrimination for what seems to me no good reason.

That said, this is a fine cast. Faith Prince is bigger than life as Della (if a bit over the top at the beginning), but later comes down to a character with more human-sized conflicts.

Dollar and Hyman are a lovely pair, though it’s evident that Macy wishes they’d just get married in New York.

Wayne Duvall doesn’t have much to do as Della’s unbending husband Tim. Despite my admitted bias, though, I had a somewhat more forgiving opinion of him once the source of his own sadness was revealed.  

Jeffrey Howard Ingman has a voice-over role as George, the moderator of “The American Baking Show.” He asks her what she’s making and makes occasionally negative comments. It’s not clear to me that this character is necessary.

The production is beautiful. Denitsa Bliznakova’s costumes, Elizabeth Harper’s lighting and Paul James Prendergast’s sound designs add depth to the drama.

Reading the script gives me the impression that this might be even better as a short story. Brunstetter’s character descriptions are extremely visual, sometimes almost poetic.

“The Cake,” contemporary in topic, isn’t a perfect play, but the fine cast and  Casey Stangl’s assured direction make it a watchable evening of theater.

The details

“The Cake” plays through March 4, 2018 at La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm.; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org