The Cake, Bekah Brunstetter’s superb new play, is a ninety-minute wonder spiked with moments of high hilarity as well as scenes of ripe emotion that sear the heart. In present-day Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Della (Debra Jo Rupp in a performance of purest gold) runs a bakery based on the premise of strict adherence to tried and true recipes. A childless older woman, she is married to Tim (genial Joe Hart), a work-a-day plumber who loves his wife, but tends to be domineering, which she accepts as a biblical mandate. Della is in a state of euphoria at having been accepted as a contestant on The Great American Baking Show. Her life gets complicated with the sudden arrival from New York of her adopted goddaughter, Jennifer.
Jen (excellent Shannon Lucio) is the daughter of Della’s best friend who died a while back. The solid bond of love between the two women is palpable. Jen is in town to organize her wedding using money her mother set aside for just that purpose. Jen asks Della to bake her wedding cake, but the affection between them strains to the point of breaking when she reveals that her intended is not a man, but a woman, causing Della to back-peddle, saying she is all booked up for the month the ceremony will take place. It doesn’t help matters when Jen’s fiancée (steamy, passionate Carolyn Ratteray) turns out to be not just a woman, but also an assertive woman who is left wing, intellectual, and an atheist to boot.
Ms. Brunstetter lays out the American conundrum of the deep dichotomy between people with opposing beliefs, who are quite often family members who love each other. Often these positions harden into unyielding rigidity causing deep pain. The current political crisis is this trope writ large. Her play does not gratuitously solve the issue, but rather points to a yielding delivered by a shared commonality, the rich taste of an exquisite bite of cake.
The play has built into it a bit of delicious magical realism in the form of the off-stage voice of George (resonant Morris Keddie) as a fictional baking show judge with a British accent who uses the God mike to lecture Della in a hectoring, ultimately salacious manner. In instantaneous changes of light, Della, in her imagination, is now on camera, and with each appearance her fortitude is driven down ever deeper until in the last episode, she is at her wit’s end in a baker’s nightmare. The device is hilarious and ultimately squirm inducing.
The Echo Theater production of The Cake, directed by Jennifer Chambers with wisdom, heart and superb pacing, has the benefit of a terrific scenic design by Pete Hickok, (skillfully lit by Pablo Santiago), that creates a very believable small bake shop, flanked by snug bedrooms left and right for scenes of intimacy. Costumes by Elena Flores enhance character and action, with wedding outfits especially gorgeous. Sound by Jeff Gardner is flawless.
The Cake, a captivating show in all aspects, continues through August 13 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles,