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Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

The Cake
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland

Julia Gibson, Jenny Latimer, and Christine Mirzayan
Photo by HuthPhoto
Many of us have attempted to bake a perfect cake, trusting that if we follow the directions completely and never substitute or skimp on ingredients, we'll have success. Of course there are no guarantees, but this is the philosophy of Della, the protagonist of North Carolina native Bekah Brunstetter's exceptional play, The Cake, in one of the most affecting productions I've seen at PlayMakers. This philosophy may be challenging enough when baking is involved, but it can be nearly impossible when applied to everyday life.

Della (a phenomenal Julia Gibson) is the owner and operator of Della's Sweets, a bakery located in present-day Winston-Salem. The play opens with her in the midst of decorating her latest creation and spouting her philosophy on baking with a Pollyanna-esque optimism. Her audience is Macy (Christine Mirzayan, captivating), a Yankee from Brooklyn who has entered her shop with a more consequential purpose than Della realizes. Macy is in many ways Della's opposite, answering her idealism with cynicism, her enthusiasm with recalcitrance. No matter what Della offers of her homespun hospitality, Macy is ready to shut it down without a second thought.

The significance of the tension between them becomes clear with the arrival of Jen, fully embodied by Jenny Latimer. Jen is the connection between both these two women and their opposing world views. Jen is a close family friend of Della, and after working up her nerve, Jen reveals that Macy is her fiancée, and they are here in hopes of commissioning a wedding cake from Della. Suddenly, the weight and timeliness of this situation comes fully to bear, and before the play is over, the audience will look squarely into the humanity and the complexity of each of these women, but particularly of Della, who is never reduced to an easy caricature.

Rounding out this small cast is Della's husband Tim (a hilarious Derrick Ivey). Their conversations are not as productive as Della hopes, but they flesh out the Bible-belt context for Della's reservations about making this cake. Dramaturg Mark Perry observes that "Della is not ready to jump on the bandwagon. She's no Westboro Baptist, but there are directions to be followed. Time-proven prescriptions for how to live. And yet ... this is Jen. Jenny, whom she loves.” Unsurprisingly, Della's journey through this dilemma is powerful in its emotional and intellectual resonance.

Beka Brunstetter, a native of Winston-Salem and a UNC–Chapel Hill graduate, had a particularly personal vantage point on this social issue. Her father, Peter Brunstetter, is a former state senator who actually sponsored the constitutional amendment that prohibited same-sex marriage in North Carolina until it was struck down by the Supreme Court. In March, Ms. Brunstetter told The Daily Tar Heel, "My goal has always been to humanize conservative values. Like a lot of people in North Carolina do, I come from a very loving, wonderful, very conservative family, so it's been my life journey to see what's human about that." Mark Perry recognizes the significance of this undertaking: "The conservative perspective is one that the contemporary American theatre seldom treats with equanimity. More often, it is shown as antithetical."

Jenny Latimer does a superb job capturing the character of Jen, who seems to have been able to compartmentalize her sexuality and her upbringing. Her partner Macy also comes to life in Christine Mirzayan's performance, though this character does occasionally veer toward stereotype. As Tim, Derrick Ivey capitalizes on some of the best comedic moments of the play. But this production is truly owned by Julia Gibson. A PlayMakers regular, Ms. Gibson gives an incredibly heartbreaking and truthful portrayal of Della, reminding me a bit of Dolly Parton's performance in the film version of Steel Magnolias. Though born in Oklahoma and having spent several years in New York City, Ms. Gibson has fully mastered the North Carolina accent and mannerisms, and her every action and reaction ring true. No matter your political leanings, you cannot help but love her with a deep empathy.

Making the most of his talented cast, Jeffrey T. Meanza, PlayMakers' first Associate Artistic Director, has helmed a production that is as heartfelt as the writing. Jan Chamber, now in her eleventh season with PlayMakers, continues to impress with her scenic design. Lighting design by Burke Brown adds key touches to each scene, particularly evoking the harsh unreality of a reality TV show set.

As a gay man raised in a conservative, Christian home in rural North Carolina, the themes of Ms. Brunstetter's play really hit home for me. The challenges of balancing liberal ideas with the bonds of family and faith are many and complex. Nothing is easy, which made certain moments in this play all the more cathartic, such as when Jen stops by the bakery to talk to Della, bringing her some lunch from Chick-fil-A, a company known for its conservatism. When Della asks Jen how she can patronize such an establishment, Jen replies that it is just plain good! But for every light moment, there are profoundly heartbreaking ones, and it is clear that Jen and Della's relationship will never be the same. Questioning religion and family and tradition is not wrong, but as Ms. Brunstetter makes clear in her play, it is not easy. Her great success is in showing us both our own humanity and the humanity of the person on the opposite side of the issue.

At one point Della states, "A lot of the world's troubles would probably be solved if everyone just took the time to talk things out over a slice of cake." It's probably not going to be quite that simple, but there is much sweetness in feeling everything that The Cake makes us feel, as deeply as it makes us feel it.

The Cake is presented by PlayMakers at the Paul Green Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 through October 1st, 2017. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 919-962-7529.

Playwright: Bekah Brunstetter
Director: Jeffrey T. Meanza
Scenic Design: Jan Chambers
Lighting Design: Burke Brown
Costume Coordinator: Georgia Lee
Sound Design: Bruno Louchouarn

Della: Julia Gibson
Tim: Derrick Ivey
Jen: Jenny Latimer
Macy: Christine Mirzayan