The play stars Debra Messing as Ernestine Ainsworth, who the audience first meets on her 17th birthday then, for the next 90 or so minutes, watches her entire life go by in a series of moments and scenes from birthdays throughout her next 90 years…all while Messing bakes a single birthday cake on stage over the course of the play.
Haidle freely admits that he’s borrowed this device from Thornton Wilder’s one act play The Long Christmas Dinner, which follows several generations of a family at their annual Christmas gatherings. Wilder, like in his two Pulitizer-winning plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, broke away from the turn-of-the-century naturalism in theatre. Haidle follows.
“I have no interest in verisimilitude in theatre,” he says, speaking of naturalism as it exists in television and film. And to put it on stage? “It’s not using the medium to its highest ability. Theatre only exists in the imagination. The audience completes it.”
In Birthday Candles, Messing never leaves the stage. Ernestine ages from 17 to 107 before the audiences’ eyes. “It’s like a magic trick,” says Haidle of his lead actress. “She’ll change her hair very quickly. You don’t notice it… all of a sudden, a sweater is on and her voice has changed a little. No makeup, no canes. I’ve never seen anything like it…This is purely in your imagination.”
And like Wilder, Haidle uses these heightened theatrics to explore the simple, and the important, events that make up human existence. “What makes a lifetime…into a life?” the promotional material for the production ask.
“Have I wasted my life?” Ernestine asks with her very first line of the play…at age 17. “The whole play is watching her answer that question. And I think she finds that answer in expressing love to the people she loves…She finds meaning in family, in sacrifice, in rituals.”
Haidle says it’s the least cynical play he’s ever written. And the play has changed even for him since its first production at its commissioning theatre, Detroit Public Theatre, two years ago. “We had our first baby, our son just turned one year old…I now know what it’s like to mean it when you say I would rather die than someone else die.”
"I would say that any spiritual awakening is simply realizing that all of the universe exists in each of us. Heaven is any place that one deems home. And this play is one person's discovery of that. It's just a shift in the mind of heaven, and that is where you are with your family."