Bekah Brunstetter's new drama, The Cake, is a rare thing in our current moment: a calculated apologia for conservative Southern Christianity and the antigay bigotry its practitioners have inculcated in their families—and have attempted, through legislation, to impose on everyone else. This is intimate terrain for Brunstetter, whose father, a former North Carolina senator, sponsored the Amendment One ban on same-sex marriages, a bill passed in 2012 and ruled unconstitutional in 2014.
Because I, like Brunstetter, was raised in a decidedly conservative Christian family, I have no interest in punishing an artist for the sins of her father. But when the playwright claims, as quoted in this production's playbill, that her goal "has always been to humanize conservative values" and "see what's human about [them]," Brunstetter invites such critical scrutiny.
The playwright is clearly pulling strings—and punches—in her script's opening moments, when Macy (Christine Mirzayan), a thoroughly unsympathetic young visitor from Brooklyn, grills the laidback, matronly Winston-Salem baker, Della (an accomplished Julia Gibson), on sugar's alleged addictive qualities. In an improbable mix of Rachel Maddow and food critic Gary Taubes, Macy's culinary ambush-journalism fires rapidly, apropos of nothing, at her clueless host: "Have you explored stevia slash do you feel a social responsibility to provide products with less sugar slash do you feel a guilt?"
Humans generally don't talk like that, but boorish, invasive, crusading liberals from the North apparently do. Clearly, we're not intended to like this stereotype as she ridiculously bullies a guileless Southern elder. Only after those all-important sympathies are established does Brunstetter fill in the rest of the picture: Macy is marrying Jen (Jenny Latimer), the daughter of Della's deceased best friend. Jen has returned from New York not only to ask Della to bake a wedding cake, but also to seek a blessing of her union from a surrogate mother. Given Della's brand of conservative Christianity, that may well prove beyond her.
The main argument against The Cake involves the less felicitous, more common scenarios that tend to play out whenever gay people stand up for themselves. Like Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem is unlike much of North Carolina; the inhabitants are considerably wealthier, more cultured and educated. In focusing on a neighborhood where everyone remains civil, violence is never threatened, and Jen has the privilege to escape, Brunstetter's work ignores the far grimmer reality that many more LGBTQ people face, in our shattered state, at the hands of good Christian folk like these.
But that story's not as comforting as this one. So someone else will have to tell it.