The plot is ripped from the headlines, but The Cake lets in a whiff of ambiguity | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

The plot is ripped from the headlines, but The Cake lets in a whiff of ambiguity 

Bekah Brunstetter's play takes its characters to exquisitely complicated places.

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Michael Brosilow

Professional baker Della, a southern evangelical trapped in a sterile, repressive marriage, puts all her passion into making cakes according to traditional, gospellike recipes. When long-absent Jen, the grown daughter of her deceased best friend, shows up unannounced in her North Carolina bakery, Della gushes with affection—until Jen asks if she'll provide the cake for her upcoming marriage to a woman.

Despite the predictable ripped-from-the-headlines setup, playwright Bekah Brunstetter gets the two lead characters in this 2017 drama to exquisitely complicated places. Della sees the deep love between Jen and her fiancee, Macy, and tears herself to shreds trying to believe their relationship isn't an abomination, especially when her own "proper" marriage is so injurious. Jen works overtime to convince righteously liberal Macy that good people can hold intolerant views, but it's ultimately Jen's own internalized homophobia, ingrained from her hyperconservative upbringing, that pushes her away from Della, the woman whose love makes her feel her own shame all the more acutely.

The route to the play's engrossing emotional climax is as engaging as it is schematic. Often Brunstetter reduces her characters to singular points of view (Della follows instructions, Macy expects everyone to think like her), depicting certain cultural divides with excessive tidiness. But just as often she lets ambiguity reign, leaving director Lauren Shouse's sensitive cast ample room to breathe full dimension into their characters. As Della, a woman whose faith corrodes the only nurturing relationship in her life, Rivendell founder Tara Mallen is heartbreaking.   v

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