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“The Cake,” now playing at Asolo Repetory Theatre, was the show I was most eager to see on the theater’s schedule for this season. Bekah Brunstetter, who is also behind the wildly popular TV show “This is Us,” has written a masterpiece about the ways hearts and minds can be influenced, one person at a time, to create a more hopeful, inclusive world.
I often marvel that “This is Us” became such a sensation during the most divisive political period of my lifetime. People all over the country have fallen in love with the whole Pearson clan, perhaps no one more than Randall, an African-American wunderkind raised by his white family, as well as his wife Beth and their children. Yet we are living through a dystopian period of rising white supremacy. Brunstetter and the rest of the “This is Us” team have a brilliant way of feeding our viewing diet with good wholesome family messages of unity and inclusion, while drawing us in to their deceptively addictive plots and character explorations.
In that same vein, “The Cake” is a sweeping moral parable masquerading as a simple tale of a young bride seeking her late mother’s approval in the shape of one extraordinarily delicious wedding cake. I don’t think I have ever sat through any kind of show more eager to have a satiated sweet tooth than throughout the 90 minutes of “The Cake.” When we first meet Della, we can’t be certain how good her cakes and other baked delicacies might taste, but Cindy Gold gives a pitch-perfect performance that makes you simultaneously want to spend time with her and gorge on her confections.
Soon Della meets Macy, played by DeAnna Wright, a political freelance writer who manages to indulge in only a Maxwell House black cup of coffee while moralizing to Della about how her bakery is basically a monument to obesity and diabetes. The contrast between Della and Macy provides some of the shows greatest one-liners and manages to make Della’s homespun philosophies of life sound harmless and sympathetic. Macy represents everything that middle-America fears – with her “we’re coming for your cupcakes” attitude, and as a result, some of her important points get lost in her pointed delivery.
Enter the luminous Jen, played by Asolo newcomer Amanda Fallon Smith, who made a splash earlier this season as Abigail Williams in “The Crucible.” Jen grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where “The Cake” is set, and Della is her late mother’s best friend. Jen struggles to introduce Della to her partner Macy, because she longs for acceptance among the Bible-belt community where she was raised. Amid Jen’s raves about her baking, Della manages to shuffle the brides away without an order for Jen’s dream wedding cake.
Once the stage for the central drama of “The Cake” has been set, each of the character’s backstories unravel before us (another familiar technique “This is Us” fans will notice). We get beyond familiar simple stereotypes to get a deeper sense of the inner lives of the four leads, including Della’s plumber husband Tim, played by Paul Romero, who manages to bring out the humanity in a character who could easily be one-note. There are no easy answers in “The Cake.” However, the audience has the opportunity to explore how and why deeply religious people have trouble accepting LGBTQ relatives, friends, and neighbors and indulge in an intractable fear of change. The past several years has made clear, that large swaths of American communities long for a simpler time where difficult issues were covered in sweet frosting and masked with painful smiles. Brunstetter skillfully manages to give us a spoonful of sugar with our medicine, i.e., tools to have difficult conversations that we so desperately need in these deeply fractious times.
The outstanding production “The Cake” runs through April 28th.