When director Lauren Shouse came out years ago, one of the people she told was her oldest, closest friend. "At first, she was OK with it," Shouse recalled. "Then she told me she had talked to her pastor. And she had some Bible verses she wanted me to read. She finally told me we all had a choice about how to live our lifestyles, and she could not support my choice. I had to cut her out of my life."
The anecdote illustrates how closely Shouse, a North Carolina native, identifies with Bekah Brunstetter's The Cake. Set in North Carolina, the drama centers on Macy ( Krystal McNeil ) and Jen ( Tuckie White ), a lesbian couple engaged to wed, and Della ( Tara Mallen ), a master baker who has long viewed Jen as a daughter but whose religion condemns homosexuality. The cast is completed by Keith Kupferer as Tim, Della's husband.
Shouse is making her Rivendell debut directing the drama, but she's no stranger to dealing with LGBTQIA issues on stage. Last year, she helmed the critically acclaimed The Legend of Georgia McBridea tale of two drag queensfor Northlight Theatre. When she was earning her MFA at Northwestern, she took on Stop Kiss, Diana Son's intense, moving drama about two lesbians and a late-night hate crime.
"The Cake is one of the most personal plays I've ever worked on," said Shouse. "When I first read it, I was like, oh my god, I have to direct this. It's set in North Carolina. I'm from North Carolina. I'm married to a woman. And when I came out to best friend, she was not OK with it."
For Shouse, making the friend an ex-friend painful but possible. For The Cake's Jen and Della, the situation isn't so simple. Jen's mother died young. Della has filled that role for her for years. The two genuinely love each other.
"What the play does is show the divide and two people trying to bridge it," said Shouse. "I can understand that. My parents have very different values than I do; they love my wife and call her their second daughter, but we also get into some real arguments sometimes because they're Republican. I can't cut them out of my life. I wouldn't want to. We had to figure out a way to go forward."
Brunstetter's plot is partially inspired by the Supreme Court-bound dispute between Colorado cake-maker Jack Phillips, and same-sex couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig. Mullins and Craig asked Phillips to bake their wedding cake. Phillips refused, citing religious beliefs. The case is expected to be heard later this year. With The Cake, Brunstetter, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, wasn't interested in pitting strangers against each other. She wanted to make the characters as deeply personal as her own experiences.
"Della's entire life has been grounded in her religion, what she's been taught to believe," said Shouse. "She also truly, truly loves Jen. So what happens if those two things collide?"
There's also a divide in Jen's character, Shouse said. "Jen talks about being split in two," Shouse said. "I understand that pull. When you're from the Southand I'm from the Southyou can be surrounded all your life by like-minded people. I'm not talking about tiki torch bearing hateful people, but people operating under a belief system that's all they know. I think that's where empathy comes in. You understand that you're exposing them to something completely new to them."
At her own nuptials in Holland, Michigan, Shouse and her wife both went full-on white wedding dress. "We had one person ask us if we were doing a double wedding," Shouse said. "I told them 'no. We're marrying each other.' "
The Cake is in previews through April 18, with a regular run through May 20 at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. Preview tickets are $28 ( $18 students, military, vets ); regular run is $38 ( $28 students, military, vets ). For more info, call 773-334-7728 or go toRivendellTheatre.org .