5 Reasons Why Birthday Candles is Worth Celebrating
By: Iris Wiener
May 9, 2022: In the swiftly-moving, 90-minute Birthday Candles, we see a woman celebrating her birthdays from ages 17 through 107 through the art of baking a special cake. It’s a simple premise, yet incredibly complex in its intricacies and execution as it challenges audiences to leave theaters with dry eyes and without the urge to call their mothers. Here are five reasons why the tissues are well-worth it:
1. Debra Messing takes to playing Ernestine the teenager to Ernestine the centenarian with subtlety and ease. She never leaves the stage, nor does she change costumes. Her transitions are seamless, and once audiences and Messing reach the end of her character’s journey, it seems that neither can remember specific moments in which she transformed.
2. The passing of Ernestine’s years is also accomplished in part due to the masterful direction of Vivienne Benesh and the six-member cast that she weaves throughout Ernestine’s life as various family members allow for us to experience life’s great tragedies, ironies and love stories as seen through her eyes. Most notable is Enrico Colantoni’s Kenneth, who adorably plays Ernestine’s doting neighbor throughout her entire life.
3. The only aspect of the production to upstage Messing is the stage design itself. Christine Jones takes an ordinary kitchen and places it beneath a starry-skied plethora of everyday possessions- an umbrella, a guitar, a basketball hoop- suspended mid-air. Eventually, keen audiences catch onto the methods by which the pieces hold significance to the stories of the characters caught in snapshots.
4. The celebration of tradition and its meaning in our lives is profound and beautiful in the way it is explored. Playwright Noah Haidle does an exceptional job of rotating the story around Ernestine’s insistence on remembering her mother through her baking, and utilizing the act as a form of self-reflection as she moves forward. Though some of the script tries to be a tad too existential (“In the career of my soul, how many times have I turned from wonder?” asks Ernestine, in a head-scratching moment), its poignant precision in deep storytelling makes it unforgettable. Audiences will never be at a family gathering again without reimagining any of many touching moments in Birthday Candles.
5. The play begs for a companion piece told through Kenneth’s eyes. We know how his story ends, but not much about he gets there. Birthday Presents, perhaps?
Birthday Candles is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre through May 29th. Visit https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2021-2022-season/birthday-candles/ for more information.