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Debra Jo Rupp Has Her Cake and Brings It Across the Country

Rupp, from TV's That '70s Show, discusses her award-winning performance in Bekah Brunstetter's new play.

"I feel like I could retire happy, honest to god," Debra Jo Rupp says. "She's just everything. She's got everything to play."

"She" is Della, a devout Christian baker from North Carolina, whose biggest ambitions are to make the best desserts possible, and prove it by winning a televised baking competition. Della is the protagonist of Bekah Brunstetter's timely new play The Cake, a dark comedy that examines Della's internal and external conflicts when her late best friend's daughter, who happens to be gay, asks her to bake her wedding cake.

Rupp received an Ovation Award for her performance during the work's Los Angeles debut at the Echo Theater Company in 2017. This summer, she earned raves for her turn in the role at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires, where Rupp is an associate artist. She's baking up her third voyage in the role as we speak, reuniting with much of the original Echo cast for another LA engagement, this time at the Geffen (September 10-October 21). And Rupp says she'll begin her fourth run as Della off-Broadway for Manhattan Theatre Club in February.

It's clear Rupp loves this play and this character, particularly because of how multifaceted the role is. "The message of the play," she explains, "is a good one. It's about getting to know another person. It's easy to make a sweeping judgment about people you don't know. But when you get to know them, you have to deal with it."

Debra Jo Rupp stars in Bekah Brunstetter's The Cake.
(© David Gordon)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you discover The Cake?
Originally, Manhattan Theatre Club did a reading of The Cake two years ago, and they asked if I would be in it. The reading was the Friday after the election, which was a really scary time for me. I got very personally involved in the politics, so it was good to have something I could throw myself into. It took on an importance in my life. It represents, I think, both points of view in a very small way.

It's nonjudgmental to its characters and their respective beliefs.
Bekah told me that she wrote it to try to get to understand the "other" side, and her parents in particular. She wanted to try to write something that made the "other" point of view sympathetic. She didn't know that she would be able to do that. And then she found my little round face. [laughs]

Debra Jo Rupp in the Barrington Stage Company production of The Cake, directed by Jennifer Chambers.
(© Carolyn Brown)

What have you learned from playing Della?
I think it's made me think more about religion than I ever have. I'm not ritualistic with my religion. I believe in God, but I don't go to church on Sunday. But people do, and it's very important to them. That's been a foreign concept for me, and it still kind of is a little bit. But I've thought more about it and the place and importance it has in people's lives.

What are the different audiences like? How does the Los Angeles crowd differ from the Berkshires crowd?
It's very interesting. At the Echo, we had a very young audience. What they took from the play was very different from Barrington, which is an older audience. The Barrington audience threw me a little bit at the beginning. They didn't laugh at the same things in the same way that I was used to. It was almost like the plight of Della was their plight. At the Echo, the plight of the two girls was more of the audience's plight. I have no idea what the Geffen will be.

Do you embrace that recognition that you get from having been on That '70s Show?
I do. In the height of it, it was difficult. I like to go to the grocery story and not worry about what I look like, and you would see people taking your photo near the frozen food. Now, it's not like it was. People are very respectful. And it's like…It's a big discovery. It's "Oh my god! Are you Kitty Forman?" It makes their day.

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