Whenever I delivered the curtain speech before Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake, I told audiences to get ready to see a show not about any old cake, but about that cake, the one making national headlines after the Supreme Court ruling. Buzzzz. There was always a giddy murmur and a rush of excitement at this news. Everyone knows that cake! Everyone has opinions on that cake, the one behind the Colorado baker and proprietor of Masterpiece Cakeshop who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple on the grounds that homosexuality was against his religion. Virtually every audience member arrived with some insight about this cake, nuanced and complex, and they were immediately invested in the conflict. Yes, our audiences came hungry, even ravenous, for a play that was topical, ripped from the headlines, and as relevant and satisfying as, well, a perfect piece of cake.
At Barrington Stage Company, we are always looking for new works that shine a light on present-day issues and open up a multi-faceted dialogue for our audiences. The challenge is finding so-called “issue plays” that aren’t didactic or preachy or one-sided. I read hundreds of plays a year, and finding such a gem is a real challenge! But sometimes, they find me. Barrington Stage Company Associate Artist Debra Jo Rupp, an incredible actress known from That ’70s Show, sent us Brunstetter’s script, and immediately we knew we had found a play with the right recipe!
The Cake tells the story of Della, a devoutly religious owner of a sweetheart little bakery in South Carolina. Della, beautifully portrayed by Rupp in our production, loves cake, and what’s more, she thinks a perfect slice of cake can fix any problem. When she is asked to make a wedding cake for her best friend’s daughter, Jen, her answer is a resounding, “Oh yes, honey!” Jen is like her own daughter, and Della is giddy over the choices of flavors and icings and what she’ll wear to the wedding, when all of a sudden, Jen introduces her fiancée: Macy.
Two brides. The news sends Della into a tormenting conflict: does she bake the cake and side with Jen, whom she loves, or does she stay true to her faith, which opposes homosexuality? In response to the gay marriage votes and legal battles rocketing across America a few years ago, Brunstetter took the hot-button issue of gay marriage and upped the stakes by making it personal. The choice becomes religion vs. family, moral values vs. love. The resulting play is a magnificent, honest, and complex portrayal of a woman in turmoil. Della’s conflict is understandable and real, regardless of political beliefs or religious views. The result is a night of theatre that is heartbreaking and stirring, and, also, unbelievably funny. Did I mention The Cake is a comedy? Our audiences laughed, then cried, then laughed while crying. The Cake moved our patrons night after night, and the standing ovations were instantaneous and crossed all party lines.
Gay marriage remains a contentious issue across the country. Making it legal did not resolve all tensions; just because something is the law of the land does not make it automatically socially accepted. In our world filtered through social media algorithms and cable news channels, we often get stuck in our own bubbles and rarely get honest insight from opposing viewpoints, which is exactly why Brunstetter’s play is so refreshing.
The Cake represents many sides of the American spectrum, which opens our eyes and hearts to the tough positions Della and Jen are in. You see the torment Della goes through trying to stay true to her faith but also wanting to do what is right by Jen. You see how the schism with Della shakes Jen to the core. The characters are complex and messy as they struggle to redefine what is right and wrong with their beliefs.
Audiences loved The Cake, but most importantly it sparked dialogue after each show, which was so satisfying to me as a producer. The play left audiences, quite accurately, hungry for more. The Cake closed over a month ago, yet we still hear our patrons talking about it in our lobby.
At a time filled with extreme national division, finger-pointing, and cultural silos, The Cake brought our audiences together to see what is rarely on the news these days: both sides of an issue told honestly and fairly. Maybe Della is right and cake can fix the world’s problems…because who doesn’t like cake? The Cake is a step toward understanding that things can be better when we all get out of our comfort zones, sit down with someone with opposing viewpoints, and share a slice of cake.
Header Image: 2019 Manhattan Theatre Club production of The Cake (Joan Marcus)