Arts & Culture

Story told in ‘The Cake’ – a play about gay marriage – both poignant and illuminating

Jenny Latimer as Jen in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “The Cake” by Bekah Brunstetter.
Jenny Latimer as Jen in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “The Cake” by Bekah Brunstetter. Photo by HuthPhoto

This week brought the debut of “The Cake” to PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC-Chapel Hill. The play has its official opening this weekend, and it runs until Oct. 1.

Written by 2004 UNC graduate Bekah Brustetter, a writer for NBC’s Emmy-nominated “This Is Us,” “The Cake” is a play about gay-marriage controversies centered on a wedding cake.

It’s inspired in part by Brunstetter’s father’s role in North Carolina’s 2011 Defense of Marriage Act. Brunstetter’s father is former N.C. Sen. Pete Brunstetter, who supported the 2011 Defense of Marriage Act, also known as Amendment One, that defines marriage as only between one man and one woman.

And it feels like the product of a series of long, unresolved yet loving arguments about the subject of gay marriage.

Here are our takeaways about “The Cake,” based on Thursday night’s pre-opening preview performance.

1. Its characters are people, not just archetypes.

“The Cake” presents its multiple points of view with remarkable sympathy for both sides – the gay couple getting married as well as the cake-baker trying to reconcile love, marriage and her traditional religious beliefs.

It helps that all four characters are drawn so well, beyond stereotype. Even Christine Mirzayan’s Macy, as half of the marrying couple, achieves a measure of redemptive sympathy after beginning the opening scene on a confrontationally shrill note.

The play’s centerpiece is Della the baker, played by Julia Gibson with impressive range from comedy to pathos. Della loves Jenny Latimer’s Jen as if she were her own daughter, which makes her issues with the marriage agonizing for both of them – all the moreso since Della is essentially a stand-in for Jen’s late mother, who would not have approved.

As Della says at one point, “Love is always harder.”

2. It’s very, very funny.

Given Brunstetter’s writerly pedigree on “This Is Us,” it should come as no surprise that the dialogue here features lots of snappy exchanges that turn on a dime from funny to poignant and back again. Many of them involve Della and her husband Tim, played by Derrick Ivey as a good ol’ boy plumber, who just about steals the whole show in one single scene toward the end (no spoilers!).

3. It’s also very moving.

By the end of “The Cake,” you feel as if you’ve heard both sides of a constructive argument. And it does not come without cost for the combatants, because all four characters experience considerable anguish as they’re called upon to defend themselves.

Macy tells Della at one point that she’s not trying to understand her – and Della shoots back, “You’re not trying to understand me, either.” At Thursday night’s preview performance, that line inspired someone in the audience to applaud.

While it’s doubtful that “The Cake” is going to change anybody’s mind, you should come away with a greater understanding of the viewpoint opposite whatever yours happens to be. One can only hope the upcoming Supreme Court hearing on this issue goes as well.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Details

What: PlayMakers Repertory Company presents “The Cake,” written by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Jeffrey Meanza

When: Through Oct. 1

Where: Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill

Cost: $15-$57 ($10 for students with valid UNC photo ID)

Details: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org

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