Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre
Through August 6
Americans in the U.S. have struggled with a cultural divide for decades — right from the beginning, it can be argued. The Founding Fathers, deists and 18th century rationalists, made separation of Church and State a fundamental principle of our government and their lives, while more traditional classes of people, especially in the South and Midwest, built theirs around their Christian faith. Other factors besides religion created our national divisions, of course, but the roots of these differences, manifest every day in raging culture wars over abortion, gender equality and gay marriage, run deep.
This schism is at the thematic heart of playwright Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake, presented by the Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre under the direction of Jennifer Chambers. Brunstetter’s story revolves around a middle-aged woman, Della (Debra Jo Rupp), who runs a bake shop in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Della is a fabulous baker, dedicated to her craft, who’s angling to become a contestant on a TV reality show, a national baking contest. As portrayed by Rupp, she’s a warm, ingenuous and thoroughly likable lady— who believes that if she could serve one of her cakes to every member of ISIS, the international crisis could be defused.
A daughter of the South, Della’s been instilled by her upbringing with tact and the ability to adapt to prickly social situations. One of those situations comes about when a woman from out of town, a New Yorker, comes into her shop and for no apparent reason begins to ask challenging questions, about the deleterious effects of sugar on the body and whether or not Della might be personally responsible for the epidemic of obesity plaguing the country. It turns out that this woman, Macy (Carolyn Rattery), is engaged to be married to Della’s goddaughter Jen (Shannon Lucio), who’s back in town for her wedding.
Jen, whose mom is dead, shows up in Della’s shop a little while later, and after a genuinely heartfelt reunion, reveals to the nurturing Della that Macy is her intended and asks her if she’ll make the cake for their wedding. Della adores her goddaughter, but her idea of what constitutes marriage is deeply engrained. The request sets off a firestorm in her heart and mind that eventually metastasizes to the outside world, and upends her life.
But that comes later. In the meantime, Jen is hurt and disappointed but understands where Della’s coming from, unlike Macy, who feels nothing but anger and contempt for her decision, and whose urban sophistication and politically correct outrage becomes the polarizing engine for the play’s dynamic, as well as its most conspicuous liability.
For as lovingly as Brunstetter has crafted Della, she seems to have shortchanged Macy, whose strident posturings — underscored by Rattery’s disappointingly one-note performance — mar an otherwise solid and meaningful play.
Despite this and other imperfections (scenes between the two lovers sometimes dip into melodrama, for example) The Cake is a singularly savory dramedy that crystallizes a contentious issue and, with empathy for both sides, portrays it in an edifying and insightful way. As an urban born-and-bred progressive, whose buttons are pushed each time I read about Bible-bashing “bigots,” I left the theater feeling moved and enlightened.
From the moment the lights come up, Rupp emanates a glowing presence; while she’s on stage, the production never falters. Lucio also delivers a quality performance as the divided Jen, who knows she has found the right person but struggles to be comfortable in a lesbian subculture in Brooklyn so radically different from her upbringing.
Joe Hart is solid as Della’s dutiful spouse, who loves her but whose ardor is long spent. And some of the best scenes (wonderfully lit by Pablo Santiago, with accompanying sound by Jeff Gardner) are between Della and George (Morrison Keddie, appearing in voiceover), the handsome MC of the baking reality show who appears to Della in visions and who holds out the promise of culinary fame.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through August 6. (310) 307-3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.