The Cake is a smart, stinging, and eerily timely comedy that feels timeless.
The Cake by Bekah Brunstetter. Directed by Jennifer Chambers. Staged by Barrington Stage Company at the St. Germain Stage through July 15.
By Helen Epstein
Start with an excellent script by accomplished playwright and television writer Bekah Brunstetter. Add a director — Jennifer Chambers — and lead actor — Berkshire favorite Debra Jo Rupp — who were both involved with the play’s development since its beginnings at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in California. Stir in Barrington Stage Company’s excellent team of designers and some gifted cast members and, voilà, you have The Cake, a smart, stinging, and eerily timely comedy that feels timeless.
On June 4, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a male Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a male same sex couple, citing his religious beliefs and first amendment rights.
This decision followed years of similar interactions across the United States between bakers who refused to honor gay marriages and pairs who wanted to tie the knot. In The Cake, the couple are lesbian millennials and the baker is a middle-aged woman.
Six months ahead of their wedding, white, southern Jen brings her fiancée Macy to her hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina (the playwright’s hometown). Jen is an event planner and besotted bride who is so thrilled to be spending the money that her late mother earmarked for a traditional wedding that she disregards social reality. She decides that her mother’s best friend, the baker-owner of Della’s Sweets, who is a devout Christian, should make the wedding cake. Complications arise when Jen becomes distracted while shopping for the wedding and she gets to the bake shop after her fiancée arrives. The Cake opens with Macy’s unannounced arrival at the quaint, old-fashioned bakery café, her urban edge and city style a startling contrast to the pastel décor and hand-chalked blackboards advertising pink lemonade, carrot, and German chocolate cakes.
In the script, Macy is specified as African-American. Born in Philadelphia, she’s an internet journalist who now lives in Brooklyn and makes a point of avoiding meat, gluten, and sugar. Della, who is white, has never left Winston-Salem, is married to a good-natured plumber named Tim, and is preoccupied with competing on The Great American Baking Show (“Thousands applied to the show, and only twelve have been selected to see WHO will be the next GREAT AMERICAN BAKER!”) Macy thinks that TV food shows are rigged; she writes issue-oriented pieces for the feminist online magazine Jezebel. For Della, Jezebel was a fallen woman and reading books is a great way to help her fall asleep. Both of of these women love Jen.
Some of the conflicts that arise among these four sympathetic characters are political; some are personal and idiosyncratic; some are about the everyday challenges of coping with change. Many of the lines in this play could have been spoken by people in situations I encounter in my own New England life. For example, Della’s opening line, ostensibly about baking but also about living a good Christian life: “See, what you have to do is really, truly follow the directions.” It’s clear that Della is a person who believes in directions and follows them as best she can.
Debra Jo Rupp, whom I last saw performing at the BSC with a credible German accent, cast as the feisty and petite Dr. Ruth Westheimer, endows Della with dignity, conviction, and complexity. The actor is a pleasure to listen to and watch, whether she is in her bakery icing cakes or trying to justify her refusal to bake a wedding cake to her husband Tim: “I told ‘em I had a full month already. And I do… I got two Christening cakes and I do like to take my time on those, plus Halloween so I do my pumpkins. I do have a lot.” Douglas Rees is excellent in his supporting role, persuasively relaxed and reassuring when he says, “Sweetie. You don’t have to justify your decision to me. We know we can’t pick and choose the Bible, honey. That’s when the edges start to blur. Fabric starts to fray. We can be sad for her, though. We can love her, still.”
A sense of authenticity permeates the production, from the play’s language to its direction and performances. The athletic and forceful Nemuna Ceesay gives us a gamely self-contained Macy. Making a strong debut at BSC, Ceesay delivers a taut performance in the unenviable role of a person who is making her best effort to be polite in the white southern world of her beloved Jen. But she is barely able to tolerate its conservative conventions: “Do we really have to do this here?”
Macy watches, appalled, as Jen regresses into what she left behind; heterosexual Jenny. She is pulled between the expectations of her old and current lives. Virginia Vale, also making her debut at BSC, has the challenge of conveying the teeter-totter conflict of a woman with one foot in a white southern religious past, the other in a multicultural, secular mentality. Vale is also called on to reconcile her character’s frothy, sometimes ditzy, wedding planner’s personality with the earnestness and goodness that has won Macy’s love.
I found Vale’s bounciness overwhelming at first, but her performance grew on me. By the time Jen delivered her wrenching monologue about imagining sexual intercourse as a teenager, Vale became powerfully convincing. She tells Della (I’ve condensed it): “When I was first trying to understand – what it was – I was like 13? – I used to think that you go to this – place – to have it. To do it. And you don’t want to go but you have to. You get Sent. And if you’re a girl they tie you to a table… Then they leave the room. And then the boy descends… He’s strapped to the ceiling and the ceiling is coming down on top of you. He’s being lowered on top of you. And you’re squirming and you don’t want it but you’re stuck and then the boy is on top of you and he’s kissing you and he’s touching you… And you don’t like it, but you know you are supposed to, because they’re watching, and so you pretend. You pretend to like it. And you look to the window… and, it’s God and he winks at you and it happens all over again. And that’s how it felt for me. For a long time. But when I met Macy it didn’t feel like that anymore. It just felt right.” Della is moved, but when Jen asks her, “What would my Mom think?” she cannot lie and replies “I think it would break her heart.”
Chambers’s long involvement shows in her deft confidence, her sure hand with the play’s rhythms and nuances. And she has encouraged her production team to seamlessly blend scenic, costume, lighting and sound design into a satisfying theatrical whole. BSC’s sets are often splendid, but this production does so much in such a small a space that scenic designer Tim Mackabee deserves special mention.
No spoilers from me. Go enjoy The Cake.
Helen Epstein (helenepstein.com) has been reviewing for artsfuse.org since 2010. She is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life, Music Talks, and other books about theater and the arts. You can find all her books at plunkettlakepress.com