Cake Ladies had an emotional punch that was both joyful and tearful highlighted by strong acting and dialogue. DTC playwright in residence Jonathan Norton constructed a piece with robust Texas roots all placed in the conservative East Texas town of Cedar Oak. So it’s no surprise that there’s much about Dallas Theater Center’s new show Cake Ladies that struck a familiar Lone Star chord. In his curtain speech on Friday’s opening night, director Kevin Moriarty said he believed this was the first play about COVID-19 written during the pandemic. So that’s definitely easy to recall too.
The comedy-drama centered on best friends LeAnne (Sally Nystuen Vahle) and Tweedy-Bird (Liz Mikel) as the owners of a pink trailer serving cupcakes. Set in what feels like the distant past of spring 2020, Nancy (Alex Organ) opened the show with a podium appearance announcing AIDSFest 2020! as the result of an outbreak of “the second largest drug-fueled HIV outbreak ever to hit small town America.” The community playhouse is set to put on Angels in America led by LeAnne’s enthusiasm and sentimentality.
Organ also plays Nancy’s son Mikey, a recovering addict with HIV who was cast to play the lead but is more of a Rent fan. His buddy Keith (Molly Searcy), also in recovery, is a full-on dude with a surprising amount of existential layers underneath those baggy clothes. Bradley Atuba plays Antonio, Tweety-Bird’s non-binary child who is returning home after their national musical tour was canceled.
As time moves forward and news reports advance the urgency of COVID awareness, the characters struggle with their own production as well as each other. Antonio and their mother struggle fight over their new pronouns and their own secrets. Keith believes the show can still go on. Mikey has a visit in the middle of the night complete with disco music.
Cake Ladies is somewhat of a misnomer. The show may be anchored by those two characters, but it wasn’t about them really. Each character had rich, compelling backstories that shared equal attention with the titular duo. The pairing of Vahel and Mikel was an ideal balance. Vahle was saccharine-sweet and delightful to Mikel’s more assertive and well, louder Tweety-Bird. Their longtime friendship was believable despite their different personalities because they layered it with emotional texture throughout their ups and downs.
Organ did wonders with Mikey introducing him as the somewhat goofy, fun-loving guy but unpacked just a little something in each new scene that gave him added layers. He also straddled the line of funny camp as Mikey’s mother who was that white, church lady with judgment in her voice we all know.
As the more flashy Antonio, Atuba was heartfelt as a child worried about returning home to the small city and their mother, but in turn, fabulous when the character joins the players in Angels.
Searcy’s work as Keith was remarkable. The character himself was a surprise who initially appeared as a stoner dude, but Keith slowly became the heart of the play and Searcy morphed the character into a deeper study without compromising her initial impression.
The topicality of COVID was quite fascinating to watch onstage even if it wasn’t pleasant to think about. Norton’s play reminded how the virus simply took over and changed lives everywhere. In this setting, it deeply and intrusively affected these friends and family which ultimately is what Cake Ladies is about.
The show was thoughtfully directed by Moriarty. The play breathed nicely, but there was some convoluted goings-on in the latter half (there’s no intermission, by the way). Some key scenes toward the end felt rushed which resulted in some slight confusion and the need to play catch-up a bit after processing what happened. As a whole though, Norton does know how to bring Texas to life onstage and the East Texas feel of Cedar Oak was right there, along with the cast, in all its glory.
Cake Ladies is running in repertory with Tiny Beautiful Things at. the Wyly Theatre through Oct. 16. For more information or tickets, visit dallastheatercenter.org/
— Rich Lopez