La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘The Cake’ has a real-life social controversy in the mix
Bekah Brunstetter is not a big fan of turbulence. At least of the literal kind.
The last time the playwright was in San Diego, for the Old Globe’s 2013 production of her dark comedy “Be a Good Little Widow,” she was stressing out about a pending overseas flight. (“Widow” happens to pivot on a death by air crash.)
Now a writer and producer for the NBC-TV hit “This Is Us,” Brunstetter — whose new play “The Cake” begins previews at La Jolla Playhouse this week — sounds well past that morbid fear of flying these days.
“I just have so many other things to worry about that I sort of don’t have the emotional space to give it that much energy anymore,” she says with a laugh.
But “I still just really hate turbulence. I mean, who likes it?”
Then again, Brunstetter doesn’t mind shaking people up a little with her work. And the real-life social and political turbulence that informs “The Cake” extends to conflict with her own family.
The piece, directed in La Jolla by Playhouse returnee Casey Stangl (“The Car Plays”), focuses on a topic that could hardly be more timely: the tension between gay rights and religion-based opposition to same-sex marriage.
That conflict ignited into a real-life court battle a few years back in the case of a Colorado baker who refused on religious grounds to create a wedding-reception cake for two men who were about to be married.
The case made its way up the legal ladder and is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments last October. A decision on the matter could come at any time — conceivably even during the Playhouse run of the “The Cake.”
“That would be crazy,” Brunstetter says of the possibility. “I hadn’t wrapped my brain around that time (frame). Yeah, that would be nuts.”
But even if that doesn’t come to pass, “I think it’s super-interesting and quite incredible that the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court,” she says. “And I’m also not surprised. Because It’s a really, really, really complicated question that I honestly don’t know if I have the answer to.
“I just keep circling the question, but I don’t really have the answer. And I don’t think the play does either.”
The newlyweds-to-be at the center of “The Cake” are two women: Jen, portrayed at the Playhouse by Aubrey Dollar (of the movie “One Small Hitch”), and Macy, played by Miriam A. Hyman (of TV’s “Blue Bloods”).
Tony Award winner Faith Prince (of Broadway’s “Guys and Dolls” and the Old Globe-launched “A Catered Affair”) plays Della, the genial Southern baker who’s asked to create Jen and Macy’s cake. Fellow Broadway veteran Wayne Duvall (of the Playhouse-bred “Bonnie & Clyde”) portrays her husband, Tim.
A complicating factor is that Jen is the daughter of Della’s longtime best friend. That helps set the stage for an exploration of how people struggle to reconcile wrenching conflicts between close relationships and passionate, long-held beliefs.
It’s something Brunstetter herself has had to work through: She grew up in a conservative North Carolina community as part of a churchgoing Baptist family.
Her father is a former state senator, and in 2011 he helped push through North Carolina’s Amendment 1, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. (The law was essentially rendered moot by the later Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationally, but it remains on the books.)
The fact that Brunstetter continues to have a warm relationship with her dad seems perfectly in keeping with how the playwright speaks of lending human, complex dimensions to all the play’s characters and viewpoints, when it might have been easy to make Della in particular a cardboard villain.
So does the fact that Brunstetter accompanied her parents to the play when it had its North Carolina premiere last year at PlayMakers Rep in Chapel Hill — an experience that seems not to have fractured the family.
Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina (Brunstetter’s undergraduate alma mater), is “where I wrote my first plays, where I studied theater,” she says.
“So that was a really beautiful, full-circle feeling to see it there, and see it with my parents and some of my old professors. It was really cool.”
At the same time, it’s clear that Brunstetter doesn’t share her parents’ beliefs on the subject at hand in “The Cake,” and she describes how her views on religion-derived values began to diverge from those of her family and much of her community pretty early on in life.
“I think it kind of started to happen in high school,” she says. “I started to witness hypocrisy within the church and the people who went there. We went to a really big church, so obviously there are lots of wonderful people, and then there are lots of people who are just there because they feel they’re supposed to be.
“And I went to high school with a lot of people I went to church with. And I would see them act a certain way during the week at school, and then act a different way at church.
“And it started to feel sort of empty, I guess. And I think the reason this whole whether-homosexuality-is-a-sin thing is such a big issue between my parents and me — I mean, I’m straight, but I started to have gay friends in high school and college. I witnessed their relationships, and I didn’t believe them to be sinful.
“So that was a big part of my journey into thinking on my own, I guess.”
Brunstetter is asked whether she sensed a kind of cognitive dissonance among people who believed their faith came from a place of helping and honoring people, and yet couldn’t see that those beliefs might be leading to genuine, real-life hurt.
“Oh, 100 percent,” she says. “I mean, that’s what’s so difficult about all of these types of disagreements. (The people) really, really feel like they’re doing the right thing.
“And you’re absolutely right to call that cognitive dissonance. Because that’s exactly what it is. I mean, rigid is the bad way to describe it; devout is the nice way to put it.
“They’re just so unwavering in their beliefs that they form everything around that. And that bedrock can’t get shaken, ever.
“I mean, it does sometimes, of course. But that’s how they try and stay faithful.”
Given the volatility of the subject, Brunstetter sounds mostly happy at the reactions to “The Cake,” which has had a scattering of productions across the country.
“At least when it was out here (in Los Angeles), there were some evangelical Christians who came and said they felt like they were actually understood,” she says. “Which is an amazing thing to hear.
“And then also you had a lot of liberal people feeling grateful that they were made to feel empathy for people on the other side. Because I think there’s a lot of vitriol now. But there is also a desire to try and get along. I think we’re sort of forgetting that.”
The fact that cakes are a mode of celebration, and often a means of expressing appreciation and affection, adds a certain poignancy to the subject for Brunstetter.
“My mom and I had a lot of seasonal cakes that we made growing up,” she says. “There was an Easter Bunny cake and an American flag cake. And then I’ve always loved making my friends birthday cakes.
“I find it to be really relaxing. It’s such a pure and simple joy.”
In 2015, Brunstetter was in charge of ordering all the cakes for the Cake Drop — a project by the Kilroys, an advocacy group for female playwrights — to honor 13 theaters around the country for their efforts to produce work by women and transgender writers.
The results sound like some sort of metaphor for unity through diversity.
“They were all supposed to look kind of the same,” she recalls. “But they were from all different kinds of bakeries — from boutique bakeries to the bakery at Vons.
“They all looked really different, and yet sort of the same. It was such a wonderful, odd task, and the outcome was so cool.”
And because Brunstetter seems capable of finding humor in just about anything (her blog, “I Care Deeply,” is a reliably witty chronicle of her daily life), she got a kick out of reading the online transcripts of the Supreme Court proceedings from the cake case last fall.
“People’s feelings about wedding cakes were included – that was really funny,” she reports.
“My favorite part was when one of the justices said, ‘Well, I’ve never had wedding cake I liked anyway.’ ”
When: Previews begin Tuesday. Opens Feb. 11. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 4.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District)
Tickets: About $20-$65
Phone: (858) 550-1010
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