The Cake: Silverthorne’s New Play at Hampshire

Della (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) is a North Carolina baker with strong religious views.
Della (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) is a North Carolina baker with strong religious views.

The Cake: Another Hot Button Topic Handled with Aplomb by Veteran Silverthorne Players

Anyone who has been a theater watcher in the Valley like me has been inspired and entertained since 2014 by Silverthorne Theater, the Greenfield-based troupe that presents shows in their main headquarters in the cozy and intimate perch above Hawks and Reed downtown. 

But Silverthorne’s goal is to reach out further and bring people who might not want to drive to Greenfield into their audiences.  So this new production of “The Cake” by Bekah Brunstetter was performed at Emily Dickinson Hall at Hampshire College in South Amherst.  Professional Director Gina Kaufmann was in her own hood, she is a professor of theater at UMass.  If you’ve never been a play by this superb company of actors, here is a chance to see them closer to your home. Live theater is like nothing else!

Theater companies in 2023 face uphill battles, mostly because the audiences willing to pay for equity-level actors are generally getting quite old.  New venues like this one at Hampshire can bring more students and younger theater lovers, and in the audience at Sunday’s matinee in Amherst, this was the case.

Hot Button Topic

Though I make it a point not to read too much about the plays before I set out to review them, my cousin Stephen and I did talk briefly about the topic of The Cake and we agreed it was a minefield, a hot-button topic, something that polarizes and causes bickering. But the way this play unfolded, a few touches of slapstick comedy lightened the load.  

The set was a bakery and two bedrooms on either side.  Della the cake baker, (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) is spinning a cake and waving a cake knife paddling buttercream icing onto a freshly baked creation. It’s the kind of tiny bakery with the little bell that rings when someone opens the door, the kind of small-town shop you find in many towns in the south.
IMG 4731 2 IMG 4731 IMG 4729Della’s accent sets us right there, Winston-Salem North Carolina, and she begins to make the self-deprecating comments and cliches that mark her as an undereducated but hardworking member of Southern society.  (Kudos to Lindsay Forauer, the show’s dialect coach, for helping Aspenlieder to get the Piedmont accent down perfectly).
She knows no pleasure as keen as the taste of one of her cakes, and she only uses the traditional methods–lots of butter, fat, and sugar– she gets part of her inspiration from the Lord. Oh yes, the Lord is important as are the teachings of Jesus that are all laid out in the Bible she says. 

Jen (Claudia Maurino) and Macy, (Tahmie Der) in The Cake.
Jen (Claudia Maurino) and Macy, (Tahmie Der) in The Cake.

All of the New Englanders in the audience at this point knew what this meant, she’s one of those religious people, with the funny accent and dogmatic beliefs…and, gasp, she probably voted for the other guy. You know, him.  After the soliloquy on the virtues of butter, and old-fashioned baking is done, we meet the person who asked Della the question–Macy, (Tahmie Der) an African-American visitor who is clearly not from around here.  Der recently turned in a strong performance and was one of the best actors in Silverthorne’s production of Intimate Apparel, playing a 1900s seamstress. Here we get to see Der in 2023 attire, and she plays the part perfectly, presenting a stark contrast to the ever-smiling Della, who tries to get her to try a slice of her latest cake. 

“I don’t do cake,” Macy says, turning and taking out a little notebook to scribble notes. She settles for a cup of coffee. “Do you have soy milk?” No. She takes it black.  We learn that Macy is from Brooklyn, and is not afraid right off the bat to challenge the platitudes and religious references that Della airily throws out.

Macy is a real 2023 woman, she writes a blog, she’s got a nose ring, she lives with a woman, and her father was a strict preacher who tried to shame her for everything.  She’s not a pushover.  Della is excited about becoming a participant in a reality TV baking show, but Macy doesn’t watch TV so she isn’t that impressed.

The already contentious scene between Macy and Della is lightened a bit with we meet her girlfriend, Jen, (Claudia Maurino). Jen grew up in this town and her family has been close to Della the baker and her late mother was Della’s best friend. Della rushes to hug her.  “Jennifer!” she says, but Macy corrects her. “It’s Jen. Not Jenny, Not Jennifer.”

At this point, we’ve been presented with two very interesting opposites, and each plays her part to the extreme. We have Della spinning out nostrums in her southern drawl about why high-fat butter is a gift from Jesus, and we have Macy the agnostic down to earth woman who cites historical references that crush much of what Della tries to proclaim. Even their looks are so polar opposite, it’s a wonderful contrast…then Jen comes in and there is more intrigue after she tells Della that she is getting married.

Della, (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and Tim, (Sam Samuels) in The Cake.
Della, (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and Tim, (Sam Samuels) in The Cake.

“Who is the lucky guy?”  It takes only a few seconds for Macy to pounce–‘I’m the other bride,’ she proclaims. Della steps back, with a silent gulp. This isn’t what people in Winston Salem do, she thinks, but again, Jen is a family friend, and she’s a wedding cake baker.  The couple asks her if she will be able to make a cake for them, and Della fumbles through her calendar binder and throws out an excuse about being too busy that weekend, the one six months from today.  All three women know what a ruse this is, and Jen tries to let Della down easily. Jen is not as forceful, she grew up here, and she knows how important religion is even though now she is living a life of a lesbian in a Brooklyn neighborhood where queer is pretty much the norm. 

That TV baking show comes back at several times during the play, with a God-like announcer named George throwing down commands like lightning bolts, first to push Della to bake harder. “Make a cake without sugar, butter, or flour that tastes good!” he thunders.  Then later George throws out a bizarre vulgar come-on that shocks the demure Della and inspires some sexy antics that will not be revealed.  Later George challenges Della, “ARE YOU A BIGOT?” setting a different course in her mind as she recalls her own sexual history, love of a woman, and the sexless marriage she is in with her husband Tim right now. 

The scene cuts to one of the two bedrooms and meets Tim the plumber, Della’s husband (Sam Samuels).  Samuels is a very experienced Valley actor who put in a strong performance in Silverthorne’s fantastic show last year The Mystery of Irma Veep. His range is striking as we hear his dialogue match Della’s, the perfectly honed North Carolina twang. 

Tim hears about the couple’s cake and it doesn’t take long for him to put his foot down–after all, he’s her husband and she knows the pecking order. God. Tim. Della.  No WAY you’re baking that cake for that couple.

The richness of Bekah Brunstetter’s script is the authenticity of the characters. We see Jen admit that there are things about her old life growing up down here that she still relates to. Her life in Brooklyn is filled with fellow lesbian couples, those horrible seaweed snacks, and living in the nation’s most tolerant and politically correct place, full of agnostics and vegans, not believers and right-wingers. She is torn because she loves Macy but there is still a warm spot for the south and all that it entails.

Della sees the real love, real sex, and affection between the lesbians…she has none of this, and she wants it. Tim is humiliated when Della’s pent-up desire (fueled by memories of past loves) finally drives her to do something I’ve never seen done on a stage. Sadly, her ploy falls flat. Despite that, the plot provides a satisfying resolution to Della and Tim’s intimacy problem.

This play brought an empathic tear to my eye and I felt every character except George was truly realistic and believable.  I think this is a great reason to travel to the Emily Dickinson Theater all the way down to Amherst and see it for yourself.

The Cake, Silverthorne Theater Company at Emily Dickinson Hall, Hampshire College 893 West St. Amherst 

 Tickets to The Cake, running June 15, 16, 17th 7:30 pm, June 17, 3 pm.