What does it say about us when that quintessential symbol of union and hope — the wedding cake — becomes a flashpoint in the culture war?
Bekah Brunstetter's new dramedy, "The Cake," grapples with this irony in a timely, superbly cast debut staging from Echo Theater Company, just as a legal case centered on a gay wedding cake has resurfaced in the news.
As in Brunstetter's previous plays, and the hit series "This Is Us" (on which she serves as writer and co-producer), "The Cake" explores human conflict from an insightful, slightly offbeat perch with understanding, respect and compassion for opposing points of view — and without dumbing down or sentimentalizing its characters.
Tapping Brunstetter's beloved hometown roots in a North Carolina conservative Baptist community, the play personalizes the emotional repercussions of societal change through a baker named Della (Debra Jo Rupp). A gregarious, resolutely conventional and devoutly religious woman who waxes poetic about cakemaking and the importance of following directions to the letter, Della eagerly anticipates her life's validation as a future contestant on a reality TV baking show.
Della's traditional worldview is upended by a surprise visit from an old friend's grown-up daughter, the beloved Jen (Shannon Lucio), whose transplanted New Yorker sensibilities suggest the playwright's own complicated perspective. Jen still harbors childhood dreams of a fairy tale wedding, and she horrifies Della by asking her to make the cake for her marriage to Macy (Carolyn Ratteray), who shares none of Jen's nostalgic affection for red-state hospitality.
Though the play's support for marriage equality is never in question, Rupp's masterfully engaging performance makes it impossible to dismiss Della's crisis of conscience as simple ignorant bigotry. Her affection for Jen is genuine, but she's tragically torn apart by a heart at war with her head.
Instead of judging Della, we're forced to see how neither she nor her blue-collar husband (Joe Hart) can adapt their lifelong beliefs fast enough to keep up with the pace of cultural change. And in that sense, Brunstetter makes it clear we're all in the same boat.
The play's tight narrative construction is apparent from the opening scene, which immediately seduces us with Della's bubbly charm and establishes Macy as her principal opponent. Director Jennifer Chambers' assured focus illuminates the characters' individual conflicts, with ample laugh-out-loud, quirky humor to modulate the serious stakes. Della's recurring reveries of her upcoming reality TV stint add an amusingly surreal touch, as the show's celebrity judge (voiced with suitable British snark by Morrison Keddie) criticizes more than her baking skills.
In the effort to ensure that we sympathize with Della, however, Brunstetter can overcompensate. Macy's early dialogue in particular reads like a laundry list of liberal activist accusations with only a passing resemblance to natural conversation; to her credit, Ratteray keeps the character smart and funny, with touching depth of feeling in her relationship with Jen. Equipping Macy with a little more of the nuanced complexity Brunstetter allows the other characters would help balance the scales.
What's refreshing and heartening about "The Cake" is its characters' willingness to face their differences and limitations head on, and attempt to bridge them — a more promising route than abdicating our personal moral choices to the legal system. This is us as we could be, if we'd all just try a little harder.
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Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 6.
Info: (310) 307-3753 or www.echotheatercompany.com
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
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