What happens when someone or something suddenly throws the belief system you have held your entire life into question? The Cake, a play by Bekah Brunstetter currently in its world premiere at the Echo Theater Company in Los Angeles, is a thoughtful and heartfelt examination of conservative values in increasingly liberal times, all hinging around one wedding cake.
Della (Debra Jo Rupp) owns a bakery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and she prides herself on living by the book—with the book being the Bible. A devout Southern Baptist, she believes the key to successful baking is following the rules exactly. She lives a quiet existence with her plumber husband, Tim (Joe Hart) and exists neatly within the lines of expectation. She regularly fantasizes about her upcoming appearance on The Great American Baking Show, the most glamorous thing to ever happen to her.
When Jen (Shannon Lucio), her late best friend’s daughter and practically her own surrogate child, returns to her hometown in search of a cake for her upcoming wedding, Della is ecstatic—until she learns Jen is marrying a woman, Macy (Carolyn Ratteray). She immediately backpedals, claiming her schedule is too busy to bake the wedding cake after all, but Jen is crushed, knowing it’s actually because Della does not support gay marriage. Della, who refers to herself as “not political” and has never considered any alternative to her conservative, religion-based belief system, grows increasingly conflicted, and clashes with Macy in particular. See, Macy, a New Yorker, was raised by liberal parents, writes for The Huffington Post and Jezebel, has an “aversion” to gluten (Della, on the other hand, insists gluten-free cake tastes like “the back of her mouth after she’s had a good cry”), and quickly concludes Della is a bigot, an opinion she does not hold back. Macy also clashes with her own fiancé—she is baffled by Jen’s altered behavior during their visit, including the sudden return of her southern accent, and struggles to understand Jen’s lingering shame from her own religious childhood.
On paper, the situation seems fairly black and white—I certainly believe, as I am sure the vast majority of the Los Angeles theatergoing audience does, in same-sex marriage and equal rights, and it would be easy to condemn Della’s choices and leave it at that. But thanks to nuanced writing and a brilliant performance from Rupp, it becomes a very layered, thought-out argument, one that doesn’t demonize religion or conservatism and instead explores what can happen if people on both sides of the sociopolitical spectrum take a moment to try to understand each other.
Brunstetter herself hails from Winston-Salem, and likely had no idea how topical this play would end up being. Less than two weeks ago, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from a Colorado baker who was charged with breaking discrimination laws after refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding. Directed by Jennifer Chambers, the story unfolds on a homey set by Pete Hickok. Della’s bakery features motivational signage and very bad coffee, and in a fun stylistic touch, she often imagines herself in various scenarios on the Great American Baking Show, interacting with the disembodied voice of the host, George (Morrison Keddie). These sequences are signified by flashy changes in lighting (Pablo Santiago) and add both humor and smart insight into Della’s inner turmoil.
Although it may be hard to believe given her seemingly hate-filled refusal to support the marriage of someone she loves, Della is an extremely complex character that you will, at times, find sympathetic. No excuses are made for her behavior, but in learning about how deeply ingrained her religious values are and seeing her battle her own demons, such as the effect of infertility on her now-struggling marriage, you can at least see where she is coming from. So much of this is thanks to Rupp’s incredibly layered performance. Her small facial expressions and body language in key moments make Della so thoroughly human that it is impossible to villainize her. In many ways, this story becomes her awakening—she is not used to being asked to reconsider the way she sees the world or forming her own opinions, and she is deeply affected by Jen and Macy’s relationship and her own inherent reaction to it, taking neither lightly.
Possibly even more interesting to me than Della is Macy, whom many will see as the kind of liberal who gives liberals a bad name. She is every bit as stubborn as Della, every bit as unwilling to think differently, but while Della is typically calm and polite, Macy can quickly turn abrasive and confrontational. Her points ring more true and valid than Della’s, but the way she presents them is so aggressive it’s detrimental. Agnostic herself, she makes no attempt to understand the meaning Christianity holds to Della and people like her, immediately writing her off as just a bad person who must not actually love Jen. It is rare to see characters like Della and Macy in media, because they represent two sides of a spectrum that so many refuse to even try to breach. Jen, appropriately, falls somewhere right in the middle. When Macy tells her she is in the unique position to “change” Della, Jen does not feel this should be her responsibility. Perhaps she is right, but people can benefit from being willing to listen to viewpoints that conflict with their own, and The Cake emphasizes the point that stubbornness and immediate dismissiveness are possibly the most damaging attitudes of all.
Despite the serious subject matter, there is a lot of humor in The Cake, which is probably best categorized as a dramedy. It is also very focused—the choice to feature only four characters is a smart one, as they all experience satisfying emotional arcs, which is a bit of a rarity, especially in a 90-minute piece. You may not expect a play about baked goods to be emotional, but it ultimately packs a punch even stronger than Della’s famous pink lemonade cake.
The Cake runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through August 6th. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets range from $20-34 and can be purchased at www.echotheatercompany.com. Following this world premiere, The Cake is scheduled to open at Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC in September 2017, Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, SC in December 2017, La Jolla Playhouse in February 2018, and Houston’s Alley Theater in June 2018.