A Christian Baker Reckons With Gay Marriage in The Cake
Debra Jo Rupp stars in a new comedy-drama by Bekah Brunstetter.
Why would you want to pay a homophobe hundreds of dollars to bake a cake for your same-sex wedding? Couldn't you give your business to a nice gay-friendly bakery instead? These questions inevitably arise around the series of recent wedding-cake conflicts between gay couples and Christian bakers, one of which made it all the way to the Supreme Court last year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
In her new play, The Cake, Bekah Brunstetter vividly shows that this isn't simply a fight between snarling homophobes and oppressed gays; nor is it one between nice Christians and cultural elites hell-bent on forcing them to submit. The Cake is a play about people in all their messy contradictions, drafted to serve in a war they didn't choose. It is currently receiving a hearteningly human New York debut from Manhattan Theatre Club and director Lynne Meadow.
The story follows the quietly epic journey of Della (Debra Jo Rupp), a North Carolina baker who prides herself on her delicious confections and her ability to follow directions. She's just been cast on a TV baking competition, and she's hoping to win over the judges with her traditional recipes featuring real butter and genuine gluten. But will she have time to bake a wedding cake for Jen (Genevieve Angelson), the daughter of her late best friend? Perhaps not, especially after she finds out that Jen is marrying Macy (Marinda Anderson). For Della's husband, Tim (Dan Daily), the answer is obvious: They're Christians and they cannot support matrimony between two women. But Della is not so sure as she weighs her love of Jen against her devotion to God.
"I'll make it if I want to," Della whispers to her half-asleep husband as they settle in for bed. In that one moment, we see so many of her competing instincts: her conditioning as a Southern woman to be agreeable, her vow as a married Christian to obey, and her impulse as an American to rebel. Brunstetter succeeds in creating compellingly real characters by exposing these contradictions. Her characters aren't mouthpieces in an ideological debate, but real people wrestling with themselves.
That is especially true for Della. Rupp gives a fleshy, vulnerable, and deeply sympathetic performance as the Christian baker. On top of that, she's really funny, with near-perfect comic timing. Even when she's glazing over the cracks in her life with sugary Southern sweetness, we can always see her humanity underneath. Dream sequences about the baking show are particularly harrowing, as a disembodied voice pointedly asks Della, "Are you a bigot?" The expression on her face as she says no is devastating, forcing us to imagine how we would respond to such an accusation masquerading as a question.
Brunstetter doesn't skimp on her supporting characters: Anderson gives a fiery performance as Macy, a woman who learned how to fight for herself at a young age because no one else would. Far more conciliatory, Angelson's Jen carries in her shoulders the tension of being pulled between two worlds. Daily fully embodies a man compensating for the little humiliations of his life by proceeding down what he perceives to be a very clear path. But life is unlike baking, and a satisfactory result can rarely be found by following the instructions to the letter.
Meadow supports these four excellent performances with a well-paced and handsomely designed production. The three turntables of John Lee Beatty's set allow for speedy transitions, while the multicolored treats on display in Della's bakeshop are guaranteed to make your mouth water. Tom Broecker's casual costumes show us a little about each character's sense of style, while Tommy Kurzman's hair and wigs provide for the most stunning reveal of the play. Lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg and sound designer John Gromada seamlessly collaborate to facilitate the dimensions shifts in Brunstetter's script, which quickly pivots between the real world and the imaginary world of reality TV.
Just as many conservative Americans have come to accept gay marriage because of a personal relationship with a gay friend or family member, liberal audiences will find it hard to demonize a woman they get to know so intimately. If I can fault The Cake for anything, it's an almost too-optimistic ending, especially after some of the things that are said and done. Still, Brunstetter admirably imagines what the world might look like if we could crawl out of our fondant-encrusted trenches and meet in peace in no-man's-land.