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Review: The Cake Serves a Sweet Slice of Life...With the Bitter Taste of Prejudice

Emma Messenger and Alaina Beth Reel in The Cake.
Emma Messenger and Alaina Beth Reel in The Cake.
Michael Ensminger
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When she’s approached by the daughter of a dear friend and asked to bake a wedding cake, confectioner Della is delighted. Her friend died some five years earlier, she loves this girl, Jen — whom she knew as  Jenny — and the two haven’t seen each other for some time. But then Della learns that Jen’s intended is a woman, Macy, and her delight freezes into panic. Deeply religious, she simply cannot grant Jen’s request.

Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake, currently receiving its regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company, is irresistibly reminiscent of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lakewood baker Jack Phillips refused to make a wedding cake for a gay male couple back in 2012. The couple sued, and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and later the Colorado Court of Appeals — sided with them. The Supreme Court, however, did not. The arguments swirling around the case were intense. Had Phillips been denied his rights to free speech by the commission, as his supporters insisted? Could his refusal, if upheld, open the door to discrimination of all kinds against gay people, as civil rights advocates feared? The justices decided the issue on narrowly specific grounds that left the door open for future interpretation.

Brunstetter, who writes for the hit television series This Is Us, is not interested in the legalisms, however. She approaches Della’s dilemma from a completely different perspective, more subtle and more humanistic. Jack Phillips may or may not have been motivated by his religious beliefs, but his case has become a cause célèbre on the homophobic right. Della isn’t narrow or judgmental, however. A warm-hearted and deeply loving woman, she’s a true believer, and steeped in the culture of small-town North Carolina. She is utterly distressed by her own decision and horrified at the thought of losing Jen’s affection. Della also has profound unfulfilled yearnings, and is both thrilled and terrified at having received an invitation to compete on The Great American Baking Show — a clear take-off on The Great British Bakeoff — entertaining lurid fantasies about being both abused and seduced by the handsome male judge. (The real judge, Paul Hollywood, might be appalled at the bullying figure that his doppelgänger, George, cuts in Della’s fervid imagination.) To complicate things, while Macy is a tough, terrifyingly smart, urban black woman, Jen is a gushing Southerner at heart, as torn as Della between her upbringing and the new world she’s discovering in Macy’s arms.

On one level, I’m tempted to fault the play for softening the hard edges of the debate, given the current climate and the ugliness seething around the Masterpiece Cakeshop story: the tormenting of immigrants and attacks on blacks and other people of color, the gay and transgender youngsters being ostracized and bullied at school, the Nazis marching through our streets. But ultimately, I realized that Brunstetter has done us a favor in showing that every case involves living, breathing human beings, often swept up in currents that they can’t control.

I did find the first couple of scenes a touch shallow, as Della descanted on the need to follow rigid rules while baking. I get that this is a metaphor for her worldview; I also get that bakers do need to be far more precise and meticulous than regular cooks. But Della is highly experienced, and you aren’t invited to be on a show like the Bakeoff unless you’re a brilliant experimenter. And the character of Macy at first seems cliché-ridden: Does she really have to be vegan? But pretty soon, the perspective deepens and the play charms and delights.

The production is helmed by Chip Walton, the artistic director who founded Curious more than two decades ago and has been focusing on politically relevant scripts for years, and it’s wonderful. I love the Presley songs scattered through the action, the cake-shop set that implies Della is still mired in the 1950s. Most of all, I was knocked out by the cast. All of Brunstetter’s characters are richly drawn, and the actors do each full justice: Michael Morgan as baffled, tied-in-knots Tim, Della’s husband; Alaina Beth Reel as a warm and charming Jen; Jada Suzanne Dixon, who shows dignified reserve — and resolve — as Macy. And, of course, Emma Messenger, whose passion and generosity as an actor mirror the love and passion in Della’s delicious cakes.
It all makes for an evening of sweetness to mitigate — just a little — the bitter taste of prejudice.

The Cake, presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 13, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org

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