Arts & Culture

REVIEW: Riverside Theatre launches season with finely crafted 'Cake'

While bakery owner Della (Mary O’Sullivan of Cedar Rapids) dreams of appearing on “The Great American Baking Show,” personal dilemmas rock her realm in “The Cake.” The play, by a writer for television’s “This Is Us,” unfolds through Sept. 30 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. (S. Benjamin Farrar)

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While bakery owner Della (Mary O’Sullivan of Cedar Rapids) dreams of appearing on “The Great American Baking Show,” personal dilemmas rock her realm in “The Cake.” The play, by a writer for television’s “This Is Us,” unfolds through Sept. 30 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. (S. Benjamin Farrar) )

IOWA CITY — All four characters in “The Cake” have coated their lives in enough sweet, creamy frosting to get them through each day.

But when their lives intersect, the heat that’s generated begins to melt that sugarcoating, revealing layers of deep-seated conflict.

All are living their truth across a cultural divide ripped from the headlines, as Jen, a vivacious young New Yorker, returns to her North Carolina roots for her wedding.

She’s welcomed with open arms — and lots of mutual screaming, jumping and hugging — from her late mother’s best friend. A bakery owner, Della is overjoyed when asked to bake Jen’s wedding cake — until she finds out Jen is marrying the abrasive young woman who has been baiting and debating her over a bad cup of coffee.

Each scene scrapes away a little more icing, until their vulnerabilities lie naked on the stage.

It’s no wonder their slices of life ring true and cut straight to the heart, since they come from the pen of Bekah Brunstetter, a writer on the hit television series, “This Is Us.”

The action unfolds through Sept. 30 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. It’s the perfect way to open the professional troupe’s 2018-19 season, playing to the depth of the Corridor’s acting pool and the strength of Riverside’s tradition of presenting socially-aware works that make audiences think, gasp, laugh and cry.

This new play rides that roller coaster in the most thrilling ways, under the masterful guidance of director Patrick DuLaney. The fact that he’s one of the region’s finest actors helps him navigate the script’s emotional minefields with his equally skilled cast. The candy-coated set colors and lighting effects from designer S. Benjamin Farrar provide a subtly jarring counterpoint to the drama unfolding onstage. That’s enhanced, as well, by scene-setting costumes from Mary Jo Harken and a funky soundtrack by Bri Atwood that reflects the tone of each scene and treats listeners to unusual covers of popular songs.

All of the portrayals are superb, but a special nod goes to Mary O’Sullivan, who embodies Della with sweet Southern charm that morphs uncomfortably when presented with a situation that flies in the face of her Bible-based convictions. She wants to support Jen, whom she loves like a daughter, but can’t support a same-sex marriage. Her internal struggle is palpable, and causes her to examine her long-term marriage to Tim (Joe Wise) through a different kaleidoscope.

Wise makes a triumphant Riverside debut as her husband, who at first seems to embody a stereotype, but quickly rolls out an evolving, endearing softness.

Cara Clonch Viner is wonderful as Jen, a bubbly belle on the outside, but torn between the ways of her youth and the new path she’s forging with an edgier, hipper Macy (Jo Jordan). Their yin and yang provides conflict and complement, as Macy ultimately bridges Jen’s worlds.

The beauty of this play is the way in which each point of view is presented with equal heart, passion and respect.

If you go

• What: “The Cake”

• Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

• When: Sept. 7 to 30; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

• Tickets: $10 students to $30 adults; box office, (319) 338-7672 or Riverside-theatre.squarespace.com/the-cake/

• Extras: Cake served in the lobby after each performance; talkback with Miriam Gilbert, director Patrick DuLaney and cast following the Sept. 14 show

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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