In the lyrical new play Birthday Candles, playwright Noah Haidle dares to imagine 90 years in the life of Ernestine Ashworth, a woman he describes as “a daughter, a girlfriend, a wife, a mother, a friend, an aunt, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, a great-grandmother,” and more. Set in the character’s Grand Rapids, Michigan kitchen on birthdays between ages 17 and 107, the play presents a monumental acting challenge, given that Ernestine never leaves the stage — and she bakes a cake! — during the 90-minute running time. Luckily, stage and screen star Debra Messing fell in love with Birthday Candles and signed on for its Broadway debut, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company. Performances begin April 2 at the American Airlines Theatre.
When Messing, an Emmy Award winner for the hit comedy Will & Grace, read Haidle’s play, she instantly thought of America’s most beloved time-shifting drama. “It’s a modern-day Our Town,” the actress says of Birthday Candles, “about love and family, the fleeting nature of life, and the changes we experience that are ultimately out of our control.” Indeed, Ernestine’s first line, which is repeated almost a century later, is an eternal one: “Have I wasted my life?” Explains Messing, “You see her 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.”
Haidle deliberately doesn’t specify a time period for Birthday Candles, which makes Ernestine’s story relatable to audiences of all ages. “The fact that it doesn’t exist at a particular time has a lot to do with the poetic feeling of the play,” Messing observes. “There’s something universal about Ernestine and her struggle to make sense of her place in the universe.” The play’s lyricism is balanced by plenty of down-to-earth humor in scenes with the heroine’s husband (played by two-time Emmy winner Andre Braugher) and family.
“I recognize myself in parts of Ernestine’s life, and there are other parts that I have no reference for,” says Messing, noting that in real life, she is at the midpoint of her character’s journey. “I was that girl growing up in a small town who said, ‘I want to travel the world; I want to get out and do something.’ I recognize Ernestine as a teenager, and also as the mother of a teenager. The idea of time and what it means feels very personal to me.”
Unlike issue-driven plays or slice-of-life dramas, Birthday Candles offers audiences the opportunity to trace the arc of a family’s history across a century, as seen through Ernestine’s birthday celebrations. “The world is a scary place right now, and I really believe that disappearing into Ernestine’s world for an hour and a half will be a welcome refuge,” Messing says. “The play is about family and relationships, things that any person who comes to the theatre can relate to — a world that’s simpler, but so rich and ultimately life-affirming.”
Before her run in Will & Grace, Messing was first and foremost a theater actress. While earning an MFA at NYU’s graduate acting program, she appeared in an early reading of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Perestroika and later won raves Off-Broadway in Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories. She recalls dreaming of becoming “one of the great regional theater actresses in our country,” until she realized she wasn’t cut out for a career requiring constant travel. Today, the actress and her 15-year-old son, Roman Zelman, are based in New York, where she shows off her unerring style sense on Instagram (1.3 million followers) and discusses current affairs on Twitter (629,900 followers).
For Birthday Candles, Messing will team up with her friend and former NYU classmate, actress-turned-director Vivienne Benesch. (The play marks the Broadway debut of both Benesch and Haidle.) “Obviously, the most challenging part of playing Ernestine is aging from 17 to 107 without the help of any external transformation,” Messing says. “I am in the midst of exploring how the tone and timbre and pitch of a voice changes as we age, and I also want to explore gravity within the body. The aging is going to be an internal transformation.”
Reminded that she also has to crack eggs, mix batter, and bake a birthday cake during the performance, Messing says with a laugh, “That’s actually the scariest part! I am not a cook. When I was told, ‘We want you to do this play,’ I said, ‘I need baking lessons!’” The helpful Haidle includes a recipe for “Birthday Candles Real Time Golden Butter Cake” in his script, which Messing has been assured is “the simplest recipe known to man. For that, I’m grateful.”
Reflecting on her love of stage acting, Messing says, “Theater is the actor’s medium, TV is the writer’s medium, and film is the director’s medium. In the theater, once rehearsal is over, it’s your show. The conversation between you and the audience is always thrilling because you never know what will happen.” Launching a new play centered on a strong female character is especially exciting, she adds. “I have never been presented with a challenge like this, and I probably never will again. But when something scares the bejesus out of me, that’s when I know I have to do it.”
The marriage of a great actress and a beautiful script makes Messing’s return to Broadway in Birthday Candles a must-see event of the spring season. “It’s fast-moving, funny, and challenging, and it will make you leave the theatre feeling gratitude for the people in your life and the experiences you’ve had,” she promises. “To watch this woman go through the seasons of her life and come out on the other end feeling fulfilled and blessed is a gift to the audience. It’s a play that has everything.”
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