Inspired by the now infamous case of the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, Bekah Brunstetter uses that basic conflict as a jumping off point for The Cake, which runs at the Lyric Stage until Feb 9. While Brunstetter’s script doesn’t always ring true, Courtney O’Connor’s production is so well directed—with two powerhouse performances at its core—that The Cake is elevated to something exceedingly special and totally unmissable.
The baker in this case is Della, a sweet-as-pie, deeply religious, Chick-fil-A-eating stereotype (played by the incomparable Karen MacDonald) who owns her own bakery in North Carolina. She’s in an especially good mood as the play begins because she’s about to be a contestant on The Big American Bakeoff, a hugely popular television show. But Della’s world is rocked when Jen (an unbelievably good Chelsea Diehl) arrives from New York—with her exhaustingly liberal journalist fiancé Macy (Kris Sidberry)—and asks her to bake a cake for their wedding.
Della was best friends with Jen’s mother, who is now deceased, and Jen has returned home to North Carolina to begin making preparations for her wedding. But Della is shocked when she discovers that “the lucky man” is actually “the lucky woman,” and she tells Jen and Macy that she’s just too booked up to bake them their wedding cake.
Despite her steadfast religious views, she loves Jen like her own daughter. It’s this conflict between her head and her heart that threatens to cannibalize Della and becomes a riveting struggle to watch, thanks to MacDonald’s thrilling performance. Her husband, Tim (a terrific Fred Sullivan Jr.), believes that Jen has been corrupted by Northern liberals and that the Bible is clear in what it says about same-sex marriage. “It’s not natural,” he argues. “Well, neither is confectioner’s sugar,” she replies, as she is unable to flat-out denounce Jen, who she loves like her own daughter, a daughter she was never able to have herself. She finds herself defending Jen to her closed-minded husband, which seems to confuse her even more.
Della’s internal struggles are played out in a series of increasingly biting, totally hilarious fantasy sequences that show her as a contestant on The Great American Bakeoff, with an announcer’s voice saying things like, “One question before you get baking, Della. Are you a bigot?” I wish that Brunstetter, who is also an Emmy-nominated writer for TV’s This Is Us, took more risks like these in her script, which too often feels scripted, particularly in its depiction of Macy.
But one of the things that The Cake does so beautifully is that it puts a soul and a face to these people that a lot of us only hear about on Facebook or argue with in the comments section. It is easy to dismiss someone who holds Della’s views as a small-minded bigot, but The Cake presents us with a woman who is absolutely torn apart over this, a woman who will be broken up inside regardless of whether she bakes the cake or not. As ideologically different from Della as can be, it is a testament to Brunstetter’s writing, O’Connor’s direction, and MacDonald’s performance that I understood, felt, and was moved by her struggle.
While she cannot endorse Jen’s lifestyle, seeing how in love she and Macy are has inspired her to take a good, hard look at her own marriage, which has been stagnant for some time. And so there’s another fascinating layer folded into The Cake where a woman totally opposed to homosexuality is actually so moved by their love for one another that it compels her to examine her own.
Della isn’t the only one torn up inside. Another layer of this play is the deep shame that is embedded within Jen, a shame that has come from her deeply religious, Southern upbringing, one that threatens her relationship with Macy. She lives in constant fear that she is a disappointment to her mother, who has been dead or five years now, and she is raw from feeling like she has to constantly straddle these two worlds that could not be any further apart from one another. Chelsea Diehl delivers the second powerhouse performance of this production, brilliantly—and seemingly effortlessly—communicating Jen’s deep-seated pain. It’s a performance of a thousand quiet moments that add up to one of the most affecting I’ve seen all year.
Will Jen and Macy make it to the big day? Will Della and Tim find a way to reconnect after decades of being married? How will Della do on The Great American Bakeoff? And will she bake the cake after all? It doesn’t unfold as predictably as you might think it will, and there’s an 11th-hour twist that devastated the hell out of me.
Watchable, perceptive, and—most of all—human, The Cake is a flawlessly acted examination of the complexities of, well, being human. It’s not some phony call for unity or some rose-colored tale of opposing ideologies agreeing to disagree (though if the photo of Ellen DeGeneres being chummy with George W. Bush pissed you off, this might not be the play for you.)
It’s the first must-see play of the year, one that I won’t soon forget.
THE CAKE. THROUGH 2.9 AT THE LYRIC STAGE, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.