Exactly two years ago, Emmy Award–winning actress Debra Messing celebrated her first day of rehearsal as the star of Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles, a family drama in which her character, Ernestine Ashworth, ages from 17 to 107. “It’s a play that has everything,” Messing told Broadway Direct in a 2020 chat about her return to the stage in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway production. “You see [Ernestine] as a 17-year-old, with dreams and plans and ambitions, and then life happens — love and marriage and disappointment and loss and beautiful surprises.” Three days after happily posing for publicity photos, Messing and her castmates were sent home as the COVID-19 shutdown took effect.
Though no one would have wished for a two-year delay in the Broadway debut of Haidle’s moving play — now set to begin previews on March 18 at the American Airlines Theatre — the message of Birthday Candles has become even more timely and poignant in the wake of the pandemic. “The play is about the potency of time passing and what we’re able to create in that time,” Messing says now, marveling at how this fast-moving story of love and family and the quest for a meaningful life will affect audiences in the spring of 2022.
Does it feel like two years have gone by since you first geared up to star in Birthday Candles?
It feels like 10 years! But there’s something potent and profound about the play as I read it now. We went through a collective trauma in the past two years — we experienced life at its most unpredictable and its most dangerous and its most fickle, and there was nothing we could do to “fix” this crisis or to protect our family and friends. When I went back to reading the play, what struck me were the moments of surprise. As a young person, Ernestine has this vision of how her life is going to unfold. And just like everyone, things don’t go the way she expected or planned.
A recurring question in the play — “Have I wasted my life?” — feels especially pertinent now.
Yes, and it’s the young people in the play who articulate that question, which is incredibly moving to me. We know, of course, that young people haven’t really lived much of life yet, so our first response might be to laugh at their naivete, but it makes you sit back and ask yourself the same question: How many times have I turned from wonder? What has been lost in the past two years? There are so many expectations about how much we should be able to accomplish in any given day, and [the pandemic] forced us all to stop, to disconnect from our computers and our phones and really look at our lives.
You’re taking on the unique challenge of portraying a character over the course of 90 years — without ever leaving the stage. What do you love about Ernestine?
I love the way she grows and picks herself up after tragedy and disappointment. I love the fact that she has a second chapter that is rich and fulfilling — and that she ultimately feels gratified and satisfied with her life. Because at the end of the day, memory is the thing we hold on to. When people come to see this play, I think they’re going to connect with the part of themselves that feels life is a miracle.
Tell us how you’re approaching the aging process, given the fact that you won’t be able to rely on makeup or costume changes.
The process is entirely internal, and that’s what excited me about this opportunity; it’s the greatest challenge I’ve ever been presented with. I have spent hours on YouTube watching interviews with people who are over 100 years old, and I’ve peppered my physical therapist with questions about what happens to the body as we age. I’ve also been working with Liz Caplan, a renowned singing teacher, to expand the flexibility in my voice. It’s been fascinating. It’s also been very cerebral, so I can’t wait to just stand on stage in Ernestine’s kitchen and say the words.
In addition to baking a cake during the play, Ernestine shares emotional scenes with every other cast member. Are you looking forward to that?
Yes, it’s very powerful, and I love the fact that the other actors play several roles over several generations. I think that audiences are going to find it really meaningful to see the same actor come back in a different iteration. It hints at genealogy and at what is passed down [in a family]. It’s about lineage.
Personally, you’ve had a fruitful couple of years, including working on a voter registration drive, cohosting a podcast, and costarring in the forthcoming Netflix film of the Broadway musical 13. You stayed busy!
I did, out of necessity. I found the pandemic incredibly challenging. I went through bouts of depression and anxiety, which I think was pretty common, especially for people who were living in small apartments in New York. Learning to play the piano was my escape. When you’re over 10 years old and you’re trying to learn an instrument, you have to put all of your energy into it. It’s a new language. That was a way to disconnect, and it brought me joy.
You also have a teenager at home [Messing’s son, Roman, turns 18 in April].
He is a senior now and we’re looking into colleges, which is mind-blowing. Having to do virtual school [last year] was very, very challenging and heartbreaking — to know what his high school experience is supposed to be versus what it ended up being. Of course, I was grateful he was kept safe, and he is so happy to be back in school.
And now audiences can finally see Birthday Candles on Broadway. You and playwright Noah Haidle must be elated.
I was just on a Zoom with Noah and our director [Vivienne Benesch], and it was so exciting to reconnect. Both of them are making their Broadway debuts, so this play is very personal and important to all of us. I actually think it’s the perfect play coming out of the pandemic; the experience is going to be very healing for audiences. The fact that Roundabout was able to bring it back after two years feels like a miracle, quite honestly, and I hope people come, because what Noah has created is truly breathtaking.
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