Complex layers flavor ‘The Cake’ at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles

Dramedy plays through Feb. 11

Amber Cartwright (from left), Annalise Palatine, Paul Anderson and Jami Johnson star in "The Cake" at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles. 2024

There are so many layers to Steel Beam’s current production of “The Cake” – faith, family, frosting and acceptance of differences.

Director Marge Uhlarik-Boller has cast well; this four-person ensemble is quite capable of conveying understanding, respect and compassion for opposing points of view. And Uhlarik-Boller keeps the two acts well-paced with this play that truly fits in with the 2024 season mission to celebrate life, love, laughter and openness of attitude.

“The Cake” is topical and compelling entertainment. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter (coincidentally writer and co-producer of NBC’s hit “This Is Us”) has provided many nuanced scenes and thought-provoking lines in her marvelously crafted reflective play. Societal beliefs are challenged; the opening night audience, of which I was a part, met some of those lines with applause, sighs and laughs.

“The Cake” relays the story of Della, a North Carolina baker and devout Christian, who is asked to bake a wedding cake for her best friend’s daughter, Jenny. Her delight and joy are short-lived when she learns Jen’s intended spouse is another woman. Della believes in “traditional” marriage, and this is strange new territory – she helped raise and is an official godmother to Jen, the girl she called Jenny Penny.

Brunstetter is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and set her play in its conservative Baptist community; she doesn’t water down her characters and their conflicts. The dramedy’s topicality is motivated by a 2012 and 2017 Supreme Court case centered on the Charlie Craig and David Mullins wedding cake lawsuit against Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado.

The costumes by Uhlarik-Boller and Lilly West, whether off or on, are character appropriate and fashionably current – from a Notorious RBG T-shirt to a sparkly wedding gown. The set design and construction by Adam Milne is cleverly designed to showcase Della’s Sweets, as well as two bedrooms (watch for the ingenious switch), and is complemented by the light and sound design of Cassie Hanlin. Stage manager Lilly West keeps it all running smoothly with the assistance of cast members changing set pieces in between scenes.

Jami Johnson is superb as the sweet-natured cake shop owner Della. She begins the play with a humorous, well-delivered monologue about the wrongness of baking with milk made out of substitutes or of using “tofu butter” and the like. She proclaims the value of baking from scratch and the necessity of using fats. “Why go to Rome if you’re not going to eat the pasta?”Johnson maintains a consistent Southern accent and an unending range of expressions and emotions.

She is authentic, charming, conflicted and charismatic with a heartfelt instinctive chemistry with all three of her fellow actors. Johnson’s Della also has an interesting crush on Greg, the never-seen British judge of “The Great American Baking Show” that she is to be a contestant on. Her encounters with his voice are both humorous and believable.

Jami Johnson (from left), Paul Anderson, Annalise Palatine and Amber Cartwright star in "The Cake" at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles. 2024

Paul Anderson as husband Tim is certainly a good ole Southern boy who confuses India with Indiana, and loves Della’s cornflake fried chicken. Anderson convincingly illustrates issues ranging from politics (forbidding Della to make that cake for lesbians) to religion. (“You can’t pick and choose the Bible. We can be sorry for Jen; it’s not natural – it’s gross. It’s a sin.”) He has a wonderful ability to convey confusion, sadness and perplexity without saying a word. Anderson also has one of the funniest and most courageous scenes in Act Two.

Amber Cartwright (from left) and Jami Johnson appear in "The Cake" at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles. 2024

Amber Cartwright as the writer Macy, and “other bride,” is a strong, spirited actress. Making her Steel Beam debut, she portrays intelligence, and is definitely a fighter who doesn’t back down. Cartwright’s demeanor is clearly articulated, and she gets to deliver some of the best lines as she demonstrates her intentions: “Ambivalence is just as bad as violence,” “I live in a world not designed for me.” Cartwright is a savvy, instinctive actor.

Annalise Palatine, also making her Steel Beam debut, is an effervescent and buoyant Jen, the hometown girl still trying to please her mother five years after her death. She is fearfully respectful of her North Carolina town’s inhabitants. She wants a house with countertops and closets, unlike what she and Macy have in Brooklyn where she moved after college. She proclaims her “brain and heart are at war,” and I never doubt her. She does love Macy, who describes Jen as being “in a Disney movie of her own making.” She is resplendent when she makes her first appearance in Act One in her red mini dress, red bow, red hair and nose ring.

Playwright Brunstetter provided many sobering moments, but also has woven in unexpected and humorous ones. And it all works because of these four talented actors and the backstage team that bring them to life on stage. Can’t go wrong with that recipe!

(The play contains strong language and adult themes. Theater is on second floor, with accessibility via elevator at the Main Street entrance; ring doorbell. Parking available in city parking garage across from theater’s courtyard entrance behind building.)

• Regina Belt-Daniels left the Steel Beam Theatre craving carrot cake. A veteran of the stage for over 40 years, she continues to act, direct and write theater reviews when not traveling with her husband.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “The Cake”

WHERE: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St. (Route 64), St. Charles

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 11

COST: $22 to $28

INFORMATION: 630-587-8521, steelbeamtheatre.com, Info@steelbeamtheatre.com