One doesn’t need to look far for real-life parallels to the colliding worldviews that form the main ingredients for The Cake, the offbeat problem play by Bekah Brunstetter, now getting its world premiere at the Echo Theater Company. Brunstetter’s bittersweet dramedy about a North Carolina cake-maker’s reluctance to bake for the wedding of a New York lesbian couple closely echoes the Colorado bakery discrimination case that is currently seeking First Amendment religious liberty protections for its plaintiff’s anti-gay bigotry before the Supreme Court.
But anyone expecting a decisive knockout blow on behalf of marriage equality should look elsewhere. Brunstetter is less interested in the truth claims of competing ideologies than she is in sympathetically exploring the collateral emotional damage of clashes at the red state/blue state divide.
Debra Jo Rupp is Della, a childless, middle-aged baker who has channeled all her maternal nurture into an evangelical fundamentalism for her custom, made-from-scratch layer cakes. “The first thing you have to do is follow the directions,” she preaches. The object, she adds, is to achieve “the taste of time and obedience.” So fervent is her childlike faith in the benefits of a perfectly folded batter and buttery icing that she insists if she could make a cake for every member of ISIS with their name on it, “then there would be a lot less trouble.”
Those convictions, along with her unflagging façade of Southern hospitality, are put to the test with the homecoming of Jen (Shannon Lucio), Della’s Brooklyn-transplanted surrogate daughter. Jen has returned to North Carolina to fulfill her late mother’s dream that she not only marry in the town of her birth but that she have the marriage sanctified by a Della-baked wedding cake. But when Jen explains that her fiancé is actually her fiancée, Della begs off, ironically betraying that there is a homophobic limit to even her willingness to serve Wahhabi extremists.
The play complicates any chance for compromise by pairing Jen with Della’s antithesis: black journalist Macy (Carolyn Ratterray), who besides being a gender-rights hardliner is also an anti-sugar zealot. In Della’s corner is her earthy husband, Tim (Joe Hart), a plumber whose own views on sex and marriage prove equally unenlightened and even more unbending.
Brunstetter weaves in subplots that include Della’s fixation on her acceptance into a TV reality baking show, whose stentorian announcer (Morrison Keddie) doubles as the voice of Della’s increasingly troubled conscience. And the narrative follows the repercussions of Della’s disapproval as Jen struggles with her own insecurities about her relationship and how to reconcile her sexual identity with her Southern Bible Belt roots.
Director Jennifer Chambers’s efficient staging (on designer Pete Hickock’s photorealist storefront set) makes the most of the script’s situational comedy, connecting Brunstetter’s satiric jabs at both Macy’s puritanical self-righteousness and Della’s unexamined hypocrisy. But it is finally Rupp’s endearing and deeply felt portrayal of a woman groping beyond the parochialism of received beliefs that elevates The Cake from mere sententiousness into something far more hopeful and moving.
Echo Theater Company, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; through Aug. 6. (310) 307-3753, echotheatercompany.com.