Contemporary American Theater Festival
Shepherd University Frank Center
620 University Drive, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Runs two hours
A play about a Christian baker’s dilemma to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple probably sounds more tragic than funny. But Bekah Brunstetter, writer and producer of NBC’s hit dramady “This Is Us,” has written a comedy on just this topic.
This year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) presents “The Cake” —Brunstetter’s new comedy about a Christian baker who’s forced to question her fundamental beliefs. The festival runs through July 29. Shepherdstown, W.Va., a small college town, is about 72 miles from Washington. Many Washingtonians visit the festival each summer where six new plays are performed with Equity actors in rotation. Package deals are available.
Brunstetter began writing her play in 2015 after hearing about cake-based conflicts across the country and reflecting on her own upbringing in North Carolina with parents who oppose same-sex marriage. Although the play was not directly inspired by the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case, the parallels are striking and the timing prescient.
Courtney Sale, the play’s director, recalls receiving the ruling alongside the cast during rehearsal and how “heavy” their hearts were. She says that although neither the case nor the ruling influenced the way she directed the play, it will “change people’s experience of the play — no doubt about it.”
“When we go the theater, we’re all haunted houses, and we come in with our own meanings and questions and perspectives,” Sale says. “So I think (the ruling) is going to color it.”
The Virginia-native has directed at CATF the past two summers and says it’s “one of the most exciting places for new work in the American theater.” So when Ed Herendeen, founder and producing director of CATF, called and invited her back for a third summer to work on “The Cake,” she was ecstatic.
Sale first read the play’s script in February and immediately loved it, both for the writing itself and its “resonance and relevance to what’s happening right now.”
“It’s a comedy,” she says, “but it’s so much more than that.”
Sale describes how Brunstetter “masterfully” creates and develops four characters who are all relatable in their own right, even Della, the Christian baker. She says this complexity makes the play thought-provoking and nuanced and less caricatured than other works. Beyond the characters themselves, Sale says the comedic nature of the play also encourages the audience to re-examine their preconceived notions and lean into their discomfort.
“The comedy… (which) is in the DNA of the writing … helps us go deeper and talk about stuff that may be uncomfortable,” Sale says.
Sale also hopes the play will remind audience members of what a productive dialogue space looks like — a phenomenon, she says, that has been blaringly absent in the past couple years.
“What I love, love, love about (the characters) that we’re not seeing in national dialogue is that these people stay in the room together, and they don’t walk away from the argument, and they don’t walk away from the awkward, and they don’t walk away from the uncomfortable, and that’s where the play lives,” Sale says.
Although LGBT themes are not the primary focus of Sale’s work, she says her lens “is always about inclusivity.”
“When I make a play, I think what I’m trying to make is the world that we all want to live in, and one that is radical and feminist and inclusive.”
Sale is excited about what she and the cast have created since their first read through at the end of May and is hopeful the play will leave a lasting impact on audience members of all backgrounds.
“I think people are going to be very moved and awakened.”