Review: Debra Jo Rupp looms large in richly layered 'The Cake' at Barrington Stage Company
PITTSFIELD — Her husband Tim uses the sobriquet Little but, as played by the diminutive Debra Jo Rupp in Barrington Stage Company's endearing, thoroughly rewarding production of "The Cake" in the St. Germain Stage, Della looms larger than life.
Della's passion is baking. She's very good at it and has made a good living for herself and her husband, Tim, who runs his own plumbing business, in a small, charmingly outfitted bakery (exquisitely and cleverly designed by Tim Mackabee) in a small town in North Carolina.
"See, what you have to do is really, truly follow the directions," she says as she finishes icing a cake at the play's opening. "That's what people don't understand. ... You must — follow — the directions."
Della may be talking about cake-making but her words also are the recipe of her life. She has an abiding faith in God; and believes all the problems of the world, including ISIS, could be solved if everyone had a cake with their name on it.
Her world is defined by the home she shares with her husband, Tim (a sublime Douglas Rees) and her bakery. "I just try not to worry about everything. I focus on my cakes. That's my part of this world," she tells a visitor to the bakery
Della is pinning much of her future on a chance to become a contestant on a big television network baking competition, "The Great American Baking Show."
The outside world will make its presence felt in Della's life. Her bakery visitor is a progressive African-American woman from New York named Macy (a potent Nemuna Ceesay), who writes for various blogs and social media outlets and is making notes on her conversation with Della as they go along. Macy is joined in the bakery by a young woman named Jen (a lovely and appealing Virginia Vale), the daughter of Della's best friend, who died a year earlier. Now, Jen, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., is on a hometown visit to cement plans for her upcoming wedding in October. Who better to make the wedding cake than Della. Della is more than willing to take on the job until Jen reveals that her partner will be Macy. Della, using the pretext that October is going to be an extraordinarily busy month, backs off.
Jen's relationship with Macy goes against everything Della believes. Even Jen is wrestling with the ways in which her life has changed. But it is much to director Jennifer Chambers and playwright Bekah Brunstetter's credit that, even when Della's position goes viral on the Internet, none of this plays out as polemic, screed or melodrama. "The Cake" is a deeply compassionate — dare I say it, layered — play about a group of decent, honest people trying to do the best for themselves and for the ones they love
Jen is very much a product of her upbringing — genteel; a soft, yielding Southern young woman who now, through her life with Macy, is moving in circles that are foreign.
For her part, Macy is a tough, insistent, unyielding, idealist who is not easy to like. That toughness, that combative spirit has been forged in a crucible of childhood and teen rejection and hostility.
"I'm black and I'm agnostic and I'm a woman and I'm queer. I'm in a world that is not designed for me," she passionately tells Jen. "And it's not just oh, no, this shoe or this house or this box doesn't fit. Nothing ever fits."
The more Della she interacts with Jen and with Macy, the more she comes to understand the dynamic, the bond of love between them, the more Della feels the ground moving beneath her, especially within her marriage.
Tim and Della have no family. "It's a big word, it's empty and it's full at the same time," the childless Della tells Jen. Even when Jen's mother was alive, she's been like a daughter to Della, a dynamic that shapes a deeply moving and nuanced scene in which a confused, apprehensive Jen reaches out to Della and Della responds with honesty and heart.
The performances throughout are compelling and nuanced; rich in humor and honesty.
For all the accomplished work around and with her, Rupp holds the center of "The Cake" with a performance to be richly savored; a portrayal of a woman in her 50s who, for all her seeming vulnerability, shows uncommon heart and strength. There is not an ingredient missing here. Who says you can't have your "Cake" and eat it too?
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