“The personal is political,” said feminist Carol Hanitsch more than 50 years ago.
Perhaps we know this concept today as “identity politics.”
You’ll be in familiar cultural territory at Schenectady Civic Playhouse’s excellent 85-minute production of “The Cake,” a 2019 play by Bekah Brunstetter inspired by the famous Colorado lawsuit against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple — a baker who was vindicated by the Supreme Court.
Brunstetter’s script flips the genders of the baker and plaintiffs from male to female, and instead of focusing on the legalities of the controversy, keeps us zeroed in on the fictional characters’ beliefs, desires and needs.
Della (Josephine O’Connor) owns a bakery in a town in North Carolina, but her aspirations reach beyond those four walls: She becomes a contestant on a national baking competition TV show, and throughout the play she converses with an unseen British judge.
Jen (Elizabeth Sherwood Mack), Della’s goddaughter, visits her hometown unannounced from New York City and asks Della to make a wedding cake for her marriage to Macy (Monet Thompson), a young Black woman. Taken aback by Jen’s announcement that she’s a lesbian, Della denies her request because her October calendar is full.
Macy, a journalist, quickly sees through Della’s lie, and soon it becomes clear that Della and her husband, Tim (David Orr), do not condone gay relationships because of their religious beliefs.
The lines are drawn, and the rest of the play, built of numerous scenes, explores everyone’s point of view. In the case of Tim and Macy, those diametrically opposed views are fairly well fixed: “the Bible tells me” so versus “love is love.”
But a real struggle for understanding occurs between Della and Jen, chiefly because of their shared history, and it’s here where the play finds deep emotion and becomes more than just a framework for polemics.
Brunstetter also creates some humor and poignance in Della’s imaginative conversations with the contest judge; in the relationship between Tim and Della; and in the opening monologue, which, ironically, anticipates all that Della will soon experience outside the kitchen, her clear-cut recipe for life becoming a hodge-podge of missteps.
The staging (Jennifer Van Iderstyne, producer) is exemplary. David Zweirankin’s set and David Caso’s lighting design work together to reveal action in four distinct locations. The costumes, by Laura Graver, vividly evoke the four personalities. And the rest of the production staff achieve the high standards of SCP we’ve come to appreciate.
Sara Paupini (with the assistance of Cori Irwin) is making her mainstage directorial debut. It’s auspicious! Each scene is a mini-drama, and she has helped her performers find the point and tone of each. And the pace of delivery is apt.
Orr’s Tim infuriates: A bigoted man, right? If Tim doesn’t completely change his mind about everything, he grows perceptibly, thanks to the sweetness Orr brings to a late scene with Della.
Thompson’s Macy is not someone to argue with. She’s got a quick comeback for everything, and she has intellectual “right” on her side. We feel it. She’s steady. We need her even when she’s kind of exhausting. A finely etched portrayal.
In a lovely performance that grows from innocence to wisdom, Mack subtly reveals Jen’s many layers, a young woman capable of standing up to bigotry but sorry to have to do so when it comes from people she loves.
From Della’s cheerful opening monologue through a series of rude awakenings, both professional and personal, O’Connor creates a woman we like and root for. O’Connor’s line readings and confident stage movements are of a piece, deeply felt no matter the emotion. A terrific SCP debut.
And the uncredited voice of George, the judge, is first-rate.
As Della says, “I got a brain and a heart at war.”
These days, so true.
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Players, 12 S. Church St.
WHEN: Through May 22
HOW MUCH: $20
MORE INFO: 518-382-2081;