A mind is a terrible thing not to change. However, for most of her life, Della Brady, North Carolina bakery proprietor extraordinaire, has been inclined to follow the directions, making sure everything is exactly right for herself and her loyal customers. In fact, she’s become so impressive at her craft she excitedly anticipates her upcoming appearance on “The Great American Baking Show.” But the crucial day one of her special customers asks if she would bake her wedding cake, a customer she has known since birth, Della finds it difficult to oblige simply because she disagrees with her lesbian lifestyle. The crisis of conscience that ensues provides the compelling fodder for Bekah Brunstetter’s comedic, gripping and thought-provoking 2018 contemporary dramedy The Cake, excellently presented in its local premiere by the Human Race Theatre Company at the Loft Theatre.
Fluidly staged with riveting instincts by Greg Hellems, The Cake doesn’t hold back in its frequent, even-handed debates about life, love, family, marriage, relationships, religion, and society, an array of themes that have served Brunstetter well as co-producer of NBC’s remarkable Emmy-winning drama This is Us, among my utmost favorite shows. As The Cake unfolds, it’s very easy to grasp why Jen – New York-based daughter of Della’s deceased best friend – would risk embarrassment, risk being viewed as undeserving, and journey all the way to the Bible Belt to personally ask Della to do the honors, especially since she has become somewhat of a second mom. At the same rate, it’s very easy to grasp Della’s biblical stance, her fundamental belief that God created marriage between man and woman. Even so, it breaks Jen’s heart knowing Della’s true feelings even though her southern roots are also an intrinsic part of her down to the core, so much so she privately loathes much of her existence within Brooklyn’s literary gay scene. But as Jen’s highly opinionated yet concerned and protective partner Macy reminds her, “nostalgia is not a belief system.” In other words, Jen today is not Jen of long ago. Either Della accepts that or she doesn’t. There are other bakeries and other cakes.
In a marvelous Human Race debut, Laurie Carter Rose, humorous yet moving, is a terrifically conflicted Della, caught in a severe struggle between the heart and the head while trapped in a stagnant marriage. Brunstetter throws in an unnecessary bit of risqué workplace funny business, but Rose rises above the awkwardness and partial nudity to effectively draw the audience into Della’s desperation, her desire to refuel whatever gas is left in her rusty marital tank. Human Race resident artist Tim Lile is also authentically first-rate as Della’s ultra conservative, inadvertently small-minded, I-tell-you-who-to-vote-for husband Tim. Claire Kennedy, previously a knockout in the titular role in the Human Race’s production of Hail Mary!, returns to the Loft with endearingly superb, passionate and relatable finesse. Her expert handling of Jen’s internal tug-of-war, the deep second guessing of who she actually is, increasingly builds and is particularly impactful when Jen reveals specific details to Della about her recurring dream involving heterosexual sex. As outspoken Macy, Candice Handy, in another striking Human Race debut, dynamically ruffles feathers. Macy may be off-putting and overtly political, but Handy is a force to be reckoned with nonetheless, providing a voice of reason that gives the timely, topical play its blunt balance.
Hellems’ production team includes the wonderful contributions of scenic designer Dan Gray (supplying a revolving set beautifully decorated for Della’s shop complete with spiritual décor recalling Kirkland’s), costumer Jessica Pitcairn, lighting designer John Rensel, and sound designer Jay Brunner’s country-infused music slowly evolving into more distorted, haunting strains as conflict increases.
“It just doesn’t sit right with me,” Della says, weighing the big decision at the crux of the play. Thankfully, the choice to see The Cake isn’t difficult at all. Don’t miss it.
The Cake continues through Nov. 17 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, and 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The play is performed in 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $16-$52; The “Sawbuck Sunday” performance, in which tickets are available for $10, is Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available two hours prior to performance for walk up sales only. Other discounts for groups, students and military are also available. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit humanracetheatre.org. Patrons are reminded the show contains adult language/situations and partial nudity.
Also, the Human Race is partnering with the Neon Movies for a screening of 2004’s “Saving Face” on Monday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. “Saving Face” is an Asian and gay-themed story about family secrets.
Dr. Nicole Richter, head of the Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures at Wright State University, will lead a discussion following the film with James Hughes, retired WSU literature professor. Tickets are available at the Neon, 130 E. Fifth St., Dayton. For more information, visit humanracetheatre.org or neonmovies.com.