Nobody Has The Corner On Self Righteousness
Reviewed By Bobby Franklin
I almost declined the invitation to review The Cake, now playing at the Lyric stage in Boston. Many works today are taking on societal issues, and getting people to think about what is going on around them while being more open to listening to the views of others is a good thing. It is healthy when we challenge ourselves and our, very often, deeply held views. It doesn’t mean we will necessarily change them, but understanding where others are coming from and why they feel the way they do helps to prevent us from putting up walls between one another and feeling anger. As hard as it is to believe, we can actually get along with people with whom we disagree.
The problem with much theatre that I attend today is that it is self righteous. Instead of posing questions that will make us consider other views, many of the works I see tend to preach, and worse, demand that the audience members fall in line with a particular view point. I have received press packages that are filled with materials that all but tell me what I am supposed to feel about the play and about myself. Frankly, I find this insulting and disrespectful. It is also counterproductive.
This used to be rare, but it is becoming too common today probably due to the polarizing times we live in. One exception to this is Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & The What that played at The Huntington Theatre in 2017 and dealt with the issues facing a Muslim family living in America. It was thought provoking but not preachy. Mr. Akhtar has said “Advocacy is not art, it’s advertising”. I couldn’t agree more.
In The Cake, author Bekah Brunstetter takes a similar approach. The play is about a gay couple living in New York, Jen (Chelsea Diehl) and Macy (Kris Sidberry), who have traveled to Jen’s original home in North Carolina where they plan to get married. Jen wants the ceremony to take place in the same venue where her parents were wed. Her mother has passed on but it is apparent she is looking for acceptance as she can not know, but does suspect, how her mother would feel about this.
The play opens at Della’s Sweets, a bakery run by Della (Karen MacDonald) who was close to Jen’s mother and has known Jen since she was little. Della is very excited about having become a contestant on The Great American Bake Off, and is describing what it takes to make a good cake. Jen wants Della to bake the wedding cake for her and Macy. Macy arrives at the shop ahead of her and engages Della in conversation.
At this point it all seems to be very predictable; the dumb and bigoted hick will respond with hate and disgust at the request while the enlightened couple will be both victim and moral superiors to the backward folks living down south. That is not at all how this plays.
Ms Brunstetter shows empathy for all of the characters and allows that many issues are not that cut and dried. In a twist, Macy turns out to be the self righteous one who has no room for differing views, while Della is willing to face the conflicts she faces with her beliefs. It is refreshing to see a Southern Evangelical treated with respect. And while Della is willing to question herself, Macy is very judgmental and believes “If you don’t want to be a bigot you have to think like me”.
Jen is the most conflicted as she had been close to Della and was brought up in the same cultural environment. It is clear that Della is a mother figure to her. Having Della bake the cake for the wedding is important to her, but Jen is also understanding, while hurt, when Della makes excuses for not doing so. Della is also feeling pain as she loves Jen. There is a lot of emotional conflict here that spills over into the relationship between Macy, who grew up in New York, and Jen.
Karen MacDonald is perfect as Della, a woman without an inch of hate in her heart but views that are considered backwards, and even hateful, by big city liberals. Tim (Fred Sullivan, Jr)., Della’s husband, is a plumber. This is where I felt things could fall apart as the stereotype so often portrayed of white working class men is not usually flattering. While Tim is set in his ways, he is also a decent man who deeply loves Della. He also enjoys mashed potatoes which makes for a very funny scene, but you will have to see the play to find out what that is all about.
The interactions between Macy and Jen as well as between Della and Tim are both insightful into why they believe the things they do and what they believe about others. It is this hard facts back and forth that occurs between Della and Jen that really digs into the conflicted feelings they both are dealing with as well as a way to start understanding each other.
Chelsea Diehl digs deep down into Jen emotions, those of a woman with a foot in two cultures. Jen does not agree with Della, but she understands her, while Della’s moral code precludes her from baking the cake, her heart tells her it is good that the little girl she has always loved has found someone she is in love with. They truly care for each other.
The one fault I found with the play is in the character of Macy. Kris Sidberry gives us a character that is so certain of her beliefs that she has an almost religious fervor about them, and many of us will recognize that person; the take no prisoner true believer. However, by the time the play moves to where the characters are beginning to find common ground it is too little too late for Macy. She has done something particularly cruel that gets brushed off and shouldn’t. And though she finds some common ground toward the play’s end, her journey there is not fully developed.
The Cake may involve a baker and the choice not to bake a cake for the wedding of a gay couple, but it is not about the right or wrong of making that choice. This is a play about how listening, and more importantly, treating one another with respect is the way to finding a way to understand one another. A way not to react with hate at that with which we do not agree. That goes for all people.
This is a sweet play baked with warmth and humor about people being, for the most part, kind and understanding of one another without having to compromise their beliefs. This is not a dig in your heels political diatribe, but rather a thoughtful look at how we are all human, and of how we really can get along. The Cake is refreshing and delicious and is certainly worthy of being tasted.
Directed By Courtney O’Connor
Through February 9
The Lyric Stage, Copley Square, Boston