In 2012, David Mullins and Charlie Craig set off a six year legal battle after a Colorado baker refused to create a wedding cake for the gay couple. Initially successful in a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. In its decision, the court reversed the Commission’s decision, ruling it had violated Phillips’ religious rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
The case would become the inspiration for Bekah Brunstetter’s dramatic comedy The Cake, which closes the Pacific Theatre season.
“The playwright used that as a touch point, yes, but there’s nothing in this play that resembles that story in any particular way aside from a gay couple,” says Angela Konrad, who will direct the production at Pacific Theatre.
Instead, The Cake largely stays away from the politics of the day to focus on a more personal side to the story.
“It’s all a very human, kind of a family drama in terms of how the story plays out, exploring a clash, an intersection of perspectives around the gay marriage debate,” continues Konrad. “I can’t say it never gets political entirely, because politics do come into the conversation to some degree, but it is very personal.”
While similar to the story of the real-life couple, Brunstetter moves the setting of The Cake to North Carolina to tell the story of Della, a bakery owner who is asked by Jen, her best friend’s daughter, to create a wedding cake. Initially thrilled with the idea, Della’s conservative Christian beliefs are put to the test when she discovers that there are not one, but two brides.
“Della has been a mother figure to Jen since her own mom died five years ago,” says actor Stephanie Elgersma who portrays Jen, one of the brides-to-be. “Jen has been living in New York for a few years and when she comes back to North Carolina to get married she hasn’t seen Della in quite a while, and hasn’t told her that she is now in a relationship with a woman.”
While the initial conflict arises from the refusal to create the wedding cake for Jen, it is in the interactions between Jen’s fiancée and Della where the play finds its heart.
“I think, quite beautifully, it’s a story about loving people who don’t have the same ideals as you, but also the conflict of what happens when your own ideals start to change internally” says Elgersma. “It’s complicated.”
As a theatre professor at Langley’s Trinity Western University, Konrad saw parallels to The Cake with her school’s own issues in grappling with a reconciliation of faith and homosexuality under the terms of a “community covenant” prohibiting sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
“There’s not much about this play that I don’t love, and the conflict within it is very much something that I deal with all the time,” says Konrad.
But while the central theme of The Cake are large issues for Christians, Konrad also sees those same issues affecting society as a whole, particularly in the context of what is happening right now south of the border and in Canada as well.
“There has been a phenomenal change in what has happened politically in terms of gay rights over the last ten years, and I think we’re at a point in history when a lot of things are in flux,” she says. “When you look at it in combination with the political reality of a right wing government like Trump’s America, and the movements within Canada that echo that in some ways, the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. As a result, I think it’s a very timely play.”
Konrad also sees The Cake as an opportunity for conversation, especially with very visible lines being drawn on both sides of the discussion.
“The playwright does a remarkable job of giving everyone a voice and helping us see all of the various perspectives and identify with all of the people in the play, sympathize with them,” she says. “That’s really beautiful, and it is something that can actually move us forward instead of just building our own little silos and making sure we protect ourselves from anyone who has a different opinion.”
For Elgersma, The Cake has been an opportunity to deal with her own views on the subject.
“It gives such a human perspective to my own struggles with how do we deal with these questions, to put a human face to it, and to have this conversation,” she says.
And while the subject matter may sound serious, Elgersma says the humour in the cake is one big reason why audiences will want to see The Cake.
“Oh God, it’s so funny,” she says. “It has moments where you laugh through tears, and I don’t know very many plays that do that.”
“I said the other day in rehearsal my favorite thing is to have theatre that makes you laugh and cry at the same time, and this play does that at a number of points,” adds Konrad.
More than its ability make an audience laugh though, Konrad also appreciates the way in which The Cake allows audiences to see the issue from the both sides.
“This play does what all of the best theatre should do, which is give us an opportunity to walk alongside people with different perspectives and see it from their point of view,” she says. “That’s part of theatre’s magic, part of why theatre matters in its ability to instill empathy and compassion. The Cake does that while also being funny and being heartwarming.”
The Cake plays Pacific Theatre May 17 – June 8. Visit pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.