One request, two brides and layers of controversy.
At its core, “The Cake” seems so simple, said Sean Christopher Lewis, exiting interim director at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City.
“A girl wants a longtime family friend to make the perfect wedding cake for her wedding. I’ve heard that story. My mom could be part of that story,” he said.
“And then it just takes one little thing that pulls the thread from it, which is that the person she’s getting married to is a woman.”
That flies in the face of the friend’s faith, “making the story so much bigger,” he said.
That’s the kind of show that has played well with Riverside audiences in his time there, including that past two years when he has served as interim artistic director for the professional troupe. A new full-time artistic director, Adam Knight, co-founder and co-artistic director of New York City’s Slant Theatre Project, will begin Oct. 1 at Riverside.
Opening the 2018-19 season with “The Cake” builds on a recipe for success at the intimate theater, where audience members are close to the action and its conversations. Lewis kept that in mind when choosing the season’s plays.
Area audiences have come to know him for tackling tough social issues — from “Dogs of Rwanda” and “Killadelphia” to plays about school bullying and Alzheimer’s — in his solo shows and with Working Group Theatre, which he co-founded in Iowa City in 2009 with his wife, award-winning playwright and actor Jennifer Fawcett, and their friend, Martin Andrews.
“The Cake” follows that socially relevant path.
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“My leanings have always been a little bit more political and social, and it has elements of that, but there’s also things I’ve learned in the two years at the theater,” he said, “like what our audience really responds to. There was such a great response to a show like ‘Bakersfield Mist.’ That got me wondering why are people loving this so much?”
He knew it was a good show, delving into the life of an eccentric woman convinced that her thrift-store find was an original Jackson Pollock painting, and the art expert who challenged that claim.
“There was just something,” he said. “The characters were pretty recognizable, and especially in Iowa City, it was dealing with something intellectual but with a lot of humor. That play was taking class battle and making it completely human. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a recipe for shows that work well for us and that our audience responds really well to: a recognizable situation, a very humanist story, but about things that are more immediate and pertinent to the bigger picture.”
It’s no big surprise that he found those ingredients in “The Cake,” by Bekah Brunstetter, a writer for television’s socially aware drama, “This Is Us.”
He was drawn to the play’s multiracial and multipolitical dogma cast. “Everyone kind of gets their say — the most conservative characters and the most liberal,” he said. “I thought that was both really dangerous right now, but also really necessary.”
Intrigued by the way co-workers would talk about “This Is Us” in the manner of a water-cooler conversation, Lewis watched an episode, which left him in tears. He saw the commonality in writing between the TV show and the play. “I totally see why she writes for that show,” he said.
An experienced actor as well as playwright and director, Lewis said tackling characters with currently controversial points of view can be more challenging for actors than playing an “over-the-top” Shakespearean villain centuries removed from the present day.
“You’re probably going to play some people you might not agree with, which can be hard,” he said. “ ... When you get into characters who are so recognizable and so right now and so divisive, that can be hard.”
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Riverside has a long tradition of offering audience talkbacks with actors and directors, to further the conversation after the bows. With “The Cake,” they also can gather in the lobby to eat cake.
“We’re hoping in a way, the best part of the performance will be the communal experience,” he said. “Theater has to be a community space.”
These days, Lewis, 39, is tackling a role in real life that hasn’t been as hard as he thought it would be. He and Fawcett, a native of Toronto, have moved back to St. Johnsville in upstate New York, so their toddler son can be closer to his grandparents. While Fawcett works on her doctorate, Lewis is spending quality time with their 2-year-old.
“I’m really enjoying being a dad right now,” he said. “It’s been interesting. It’s a very big change. He demands us to be less selfish and in theory, better versions of ourselves. Theater has been a pretty big obsession of mine for a long time. In a weird way, that can make you lose sight of what’s important.”
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WHAT: “The Cake”
WHERE: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
WHEN: Friday (9/7) to Sept. 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/