The Cake Tackles the Limits of Faith and Commerce

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The loveliest and most expensive cake most of us will ever buy is, without doubt, a wedding cake. A focus on one of the most special days in a couple’s life, the cake is a sweet, beautifully decorated symbol of good fortune and marital happiness.

But in recent years, as some bakers have refused to make cakes for same-sex couples, a cherished tradition has become one more focus of America’s culture wars.

Playwright and former This Is Us writer-producer Bekah Brunstetter has responded with The Cake, a play about a pair of brides-to-be and the Christian bake-shop owner who feels she just can’t go against her beliefs to make the women a wedding cake.

City Theatre Miami, best known for more than two decades of championing short plays and musicals via its Summer Shorts festivals, is making The Cake one of its rare full-length productions. The play opened to the public on December 7 and is scheduled to run through Sunday, December 22, as part of the Theater Up Close series in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

Brunstetter says she was inspired in part by what became the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In that case, the court overturned on narrow grounds a lower court decision stating that a baker in Lakewood, Colorado was within his rights to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

“I thought it was a great jumping-off place for a play,” Brunstetter says. “But I’m not into docudrama.”  Instead, the playwright used her imagination and folded in bits of her background. She grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where her family’s conservative Baptist faith was a big part of her childhood. When Brunstetter was in college, her father, former state Sen. Peter S. Brunstetter, “put forth legislation that would ban gay marriage in North Carolina.”

Though she is straight, married to actor Morrison Keddie, Brunstetter has many gay and lesbian friends, and her father’s bill didn’t sit well.

“I would make my opposition clear, but then back away. My mom and I are peacemakers. We try to consider other points of view,” she says. “The play itself is my attempt to make my argument.”

Flipping the gender of the focal couple came about, she says, “because there’s less light shone on gay women, and I’m a woman. What if I’d brought a woman home?”

Irene Adjan plays a North Carolina baker named Della in City Theatre’s production of Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake.EXPAND

Irene Adjan plays a North Carolina baker named Della in City Theatre’s production of Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake.

Photo courtesy of George Schiavone

The Cake, which has had about 70 productions since its 2017 Los Angeles premiere, is set in North Carolina. Della Brady, the owner of Della’s Sweets, is getting ready to compete on the reality TV show, The Big American Bake-Off, when an attractive black New Yorker named Macy enters her shop and starts quizzing her, jotting down notes.

Della soon learns that Macy is about to marry Jen, the daughter of Della’s late best friend. Jen wants Della to make the wedding cake, but Della awkwardly begs off, claiming she’s already overbooked for October. That night at bedtime, the baker shares her anguished feelings with her good ol’ boy husband Tim, who cites the Bible as he assures her that saying no was her only choice. Yet as the play goes on, Brunstetter explores the virtues and flaws of all four characters and their arguments.

Staged by artistic director Margaret M. Ledford, City Theatre’s production features three-time Carbonell Award winner Irene Adjan as Della, Lexi Langs as Jen, Stephon Duncan as Macy, and Michael Gioia as Tim.

“I fell in love with the play for so many reasons,” says Ledford, who grew up in Tennessee and enjoys baking. “Not only because of how current the topic is, but also because both sides of the coin are so fleshed out, so deep. In our polarizing world, we have to be able to look at someone in their totality. Nobody’s right here. Nobody’s wrong.”

As for Adjan, she did something she rarely does, lobbying Ledford to consider her for the role of Della.

“I read about this play before City announced it,” she says. “I have a degree in international baking and pastries from the Florida Culinary Institute. And I tend to get offered the same type of roles as [original Cake star] Debra Jo Rupp.”

Adjan welcomes the chance to advocate for understanding through a resonant, touching, observant comedy.

“Like many people, I have fatigue with political disagreements. So many people are busy arguing and yelling and not talking to each other. People think, If you disagree with me, you’re my enemy,” she says.

“Della is very religious, but she did go to college. As she says, ‘I have a brain and a heart at war.’ I think a lot of people are going to feel understood when they see this play … People are not as black and white as we make them. As long as people are trying, that’s all we can ask of them.”

Born and raised in Miami, Gioia played lots of Southern men when he was in grad school at the University of Florida. He sees Tim, whose intimate relationship with Della has diminished over the years, as an alpha male “whose doctrine tells him that he’s right, that you don’t have to talk about things, because they’re already decided … But Tim eventually does try. He literally says that. They take their first steps – but it’s not going to be easy.”

The New York-based Langs has been steeped in the world of weddings, having married husband Ian Aric just a few weeks ago.

“I read a lot of interviews with Bekah, and I see a lot of her in Jen,” Langs says. “She’s hopeful, optimistic, full of joy. She looks for the good in people … In the play, everyone is able to find a sense of empathy for another person. It is possible to talk with one another and treat each other with respect.”

Duncan, who says one of her goals has been to work in a show at the Arsht Center, sees Macy as “a firecracker.”

“She’s unapologetic about who she is,” she says. “She’s different from me in the way she moves. The way she owns her space is so forward … In the first scene, she’s playing with making Della uncomfortable, with figuring Della out. She’s in the South, where the mentality is that being gay is wrong.”

Brunstetter, whose career is flourishing with projects such as making a movie of The Cake, writing a pilot for Hulu and developing a contemporary TV remake of Oklahoma!, continues to write plays. Her parents first saw a North Carolina production of The Cake two years ago – then, she says, “it was a lot for them to take in” – but then they traveled to New York to see it Off-Broadway.

“They’re wonderful, supportive and proud of me. We don’t always agree. Certainly, we make each other mad. But we try to support each other,” Brunstetter says.

Ledford, who used intimacy choreography to stage certain moments between Della and Tim and between Jen and Macy, emphasizes that even though the subject matter in The Cake is deeply important, Brunstetter’s approach makes for an enjoyable experience.

The Cake is filled with love and humor,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like a heavy night. What better gift for the holidays?”

Christine Dolen, artburstmiami.com

The Cake. Through December 22, at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $45 to $50. Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.

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