Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Sweet Treat in "The Cake"

The Cake

J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

By Bekah Brunstetter

Directed by Tracy Ward
New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco

Until December 1, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

To make a perfect cake, “what you have to do is really, truly, follow the directions,” says Della, the proprietor of Della’s Sweets bakery in North Carolina in Bekah Brunstetter’s light but satisfying comedy “The Cake.”

Della is good enough to be a contestant on “The Great American Baking Show” where an unseen announcer booms out instructions in a Godlike British voice to which Della responds in flustered attempts to obey. The “revelations” of the voice, made more dramatic by light from above, get funnier and more absurd throughout the play. Bay area newcomer J. J. Van Name makes Della warm and likable, a good woman who follows the Good Book as closely as a recipe.

Jensen Power and J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

When Jennie (Jensen Power), the lighthearted daughter of Della’s best friend who died five years earlier, comes back to town to announce that she’s getting married and asks Della to make the cake, Della is overjoyed until she learns that the “lucky man” is actually a woman, Macy, a no-nonsense, truth-speaking, Brooklyn-bred black journalist. As much as she loves Jen, Della cannot bring herself to agree to fulfill Jen’s wish. “It just doesn’t sit right,” she finally admits sadly.

Conflicting beliefs, old traditions, fear, and love make for a lumpy batter. A Southern girl at heart, Jen longs for a lovely hometown wedding complete with a white dress, fairy lights, and cake, yet she realizes how much wider her world has become with Macy and their life in Brooklyn. Jensen Power portrays a soul divided in a tug of war of love. An exact opposite of Jen in temperament, Asia Jackson plays a cooly present Macy who cannot abide what the Southern lifestyle offers, from gluten and sugar loaded treats to conservative politics. When Della tries to politely converse with Macy, it’s like watching a dialog between two visitors from different planets.

Observing the genuine love between Jen and Macy, Della begins to realize the limitations of her own life, especially her marriage to her good ole’ boy husband Tim (a charming if not clueless Dixon Phillips). In a scene where Della, aching for physical touch, tries to tempt Tim with buttercream frosting, his confused response reveals the deep and sad dissatisfaction both of these characters have learned to hide over the years. In a powerful monolog, Della laments that her sexual urges bring the shame Eve must have felt when she ate the forbidden fruit, a shame that is passed down like a legacy from generation to generation. In a comedic counterbalance of one of the funniest scenes, Tim later tries to copy Della’s ploy in his own homey way.

Jensen Power, Asia Jackson, and J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

The optimism of “The Cake” shows that however unlikely, it is possible for change to occur albeit slowly. Given our current volatile political climate, the clash of worldviews could be incendiary if it weren’t for Brunstetter’s gentle touch and compassion for her characters.

A special nod to Carlos Aceves for his ingeniously simple and versatile set that makes Della’s bakery a contained world of delectable sweetness with turntables rotating to reveal alternate scenes.

Like a lovingly prepared buttercream confection, “The Cake” sparkles with a well-crafted script that allows the actors, directed by Tracy Ward, to enhance each other in scenes with surprising humor and revelations that give the audience a tasty treat.

"The Cake" by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Tracy Ward, New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco, through December 1, 2019. Info: NCTSF.org

Della  J. J. Van Name
Macy Asia Jackson 
Tim Dixon Phillips
Jen Jensen Power

Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Tracy Ward 
Scenic design by Carlos Aceves 
Intimacy direction by Arturo Catricala
Costume design by Joanne Martin
Props design by Tom O’Brien
Lighting design by Molly Stewart-Cohn
Sound design by Kalon Thibodeaux

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