Bekah Brunstetter puts a deeply personal, delightfully down-home face on the Gay-Wedding-Cake Wars in The Cake, the gifted young playwright’s latest World Premiere dramedy, another feather in director Jennifer Chambers’ and The Echo Theater Company’s multi-plumed hats.

North Carolinian Della Brady (Debra Jo Rupp) has been confectioning Winston-Salem’s most heavenly cakes for so many years, it’s no wonder she’s been hand-picked among thousands of applicants to compete on reality TV’s Great American Baking Show, news which means absolutely nothing to Macy (Carolyn Rattaray), the gluten-averse Yankee visitor who’s shown up this morning at Della’s Sweets, reporter’s notebook in hand.

The reason for Macy’s unexpected visit becomes clear when Jen (Shannon Lucio), the closest thing married-without-children Della has ever had to a daughter, walks through her bakery door, back from the Big Apple for the first time since her mother lost her battle with cancer five years ago, bursting today with news she wants Della to be the first to hear.

Jen is getting married in the fall, and there’s no one on earth she’d rather have bake her wedding cake than the best friend her mama ever had, news which renders Della speechless, first with joy and then with dismay when she learns that Jen’s fiancé is not only a fiancée but a strident Yankee cake-hater to boot.

To do Della justice, Winston-Salem’s most renowned baker doesn’t get on her high horse and out-and-out refuse to make Jen and Macy’s wedding cake. (October is, after all, one of the year’s busiest months what with christenings and Halloween and the like.)

Still, Jen knows in her heart of hearts that if she were marrying a man, Della would find a way to squeeze her in, and so, hiding her humiliation with an apologetic smile, she exits Della’s Sweets, though hopefully not for good.

In less inspired hands, Brunstetter’s latest could easily have turned into either a strident denunciation of Christian hypocrisy or a TV-movie-ready tale of one Bible thumper’s road-to-Damascus conversion to from gay-hater to rainbow-flag-waver.

The Cake is neither of these, and much of what makes it Brunsetter’s finest play since her extraordinary Be A Good Little Widow are the expectation-defying ways her nuanced characters, including Della’s good-ol’-boy husband Tim (Joe Hart), try (to varying degrees and with varying success rates) to understand those at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Topping the list of tryers is none other than conservative Christian Della herself, and since the role is played with multi-layered brilliance by quintessential TV-mom Rupp (who as any That ‘70s Show fan will tell you doesn’t have an unlikable bone in her bubbly petite frame), it’s hard to imagine an audience member not on Della’s side, even at her most hurtful, because God love her, she does try, and so do we for the effort if not always for the results.

The always marvelous Hart’s salt-of-the earth Joe does try too, though he’s got his own struggles as a man incapable of going forth and multiplying and who now must face the consequences of a childless (and now sexless) marriage.

Lucio (a warm, radiant Jen) and Rattaray (who makes Macy as unexpectedly likable as she is abrasive) do equally superb work, with an offstage Morrison Keddie voicing The Great American Baking Show’s Simon Cowell-like host to deliciously full-of-himself effect.

Scenic designer Pete Hickok’s terrific use of the wide rectangular Atwater Village stage allows for lickety-split scene changes from Della’s scrumptiously cake-filled bake shop to double beds on either side, aided by Pablo Santiago’s topnotch lighting design, one that includes some delightful fantasy-sequence effects.

Jeff Gardner’s multi-faceted sound-design mix of music and layered effects is one of his best, with Elena Flores’s just-right costumes completing another fabulous Echo Theater production design.

The Cake is produced by Jesse Cannady and Nadia Marina. Natalie Figaredo is production stage manager. Skyler Gray is dramaturg. Casting is by Meg Fister.

Additional program credits are shared by Tara Karsian (consulting producer), Michael Sturgis (associate producer), and bakers Kaleb King, Kellie Haggett, and Elena Calderon.

Treating all of her characters with the utmost affection and respect, Bekah Brunstetter has written that rarity among LGBT-themed plays, one that might actually inspire baby steps towards mutual understanding. I laughed, I cried, I learned, I loved, and like a certain someone who shall remain nameless, I am better for having tasted The Cake.

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The Echo Theater Company @ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
July 1, 2017
Photos: Darrett Sanders

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