Recipes for a birthday cake and for life at Detroit Public Theatre
DETROIT, Mich.–Even more than major holidays or anniversaries, a birthday is the most personal of mile markers as we journey through life. We don’t remember our original birth day, or the first few after. But if we’re lucky we have a few memorable celebrations along the way. Then there are the specific birthdays designated as special ones by various cultures: Thirteen, 15, 16. Eighteen, 21, 30. The Big 4-0.” “Fifty is the new 40.” Sixty-five. 100!
Perhaps at some point we stop observing them much. Or, maybe we hate the reminder of fleeing time and departing loved ones, and of the rude reminder of how our lives have been lived. But we NEVER forget, “Today is my birthday.”
And neither does Ernestine, the birthday girl in the Detroit Public Theatre’s poignant new show Birthday Candles written by Noah Haidle. We first find Ernestine as an exuberant teen, performing her version of “Queen Lear” (a feminist revision!) for her proud mother, who’s baking her daughter a traditional cake.
We meet two teen boys, nerdy Kenneth and jockish Matthew, both smitten with Ernestine. Although obviously attracted to Matt, she declares she won’t let herself fall in love with a local boy, as she’s ready to see the world once high school is over.
A moment’s pause, and it’s a year later. Her mother has died, and Ernestine is baking the cake herself. A pause, and it’s years later. Ernestine is still in the same kitchen, baking her cake, married to Matt, and with children. Do the math, and you realize she became pregnant and got married just after high school. No off-to-see-the-world for her.
And so it continues, Ernestine’s cake-baking and birthday parties, as the children grow up, as her family expands and contracts, fights, faces divorces and sickness and more tragic deaths. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren are born. Time flies by, people seem to have come and gone in a blink. But so moving is this story that these quick changes seem not a theatrical necessity, but a reflection of how fast it all seems to go in real life as well.
A wonderful cast has already fully inhabited the lives of this brand-new play. Claire Karpen as Ernestine is marvelous, filling this woman at all ages with both sweetness and strength.
The two men in Ernestine’s life are contrasts. Michael Brian Ogden is convincing as as the center of her life for many years, conveying in quick bits his varied feelings for his kids (affectionate for his daughter, obnoxiously judgmental of his son), his growing distance from his wife, his hesitant return later in life.
Daniel Pearce is delightful as Kenneth, an impish guy who always knows what to say, who can surprise Ernestine, and who continues to carry the torch for her over many decades.
The remainder of the cast easily eases into and out of multiple roles. Hallie Bee Bard is by turns Alice’s ailing mom, troubled daughter and even later generations of Ernestine descendants.
Dani Cochrane ranges from the world’s most insecure daughter-in-law to Ernestine’s grandchild to a cranky woman who has an unusual encounter with Ernestine on her last birthday. And Chris Corporandy is the son who spars with his father and loves his mother, and a kind-hearted stranger who gives Ernestine the gift of listening to her memories.
(On a lighter note, props to the crucial goldfish, who’s onstage almost as long as the leading lady – and props to whoever takes care of him/ her.)
As usual at the DPT, the design and tech elements are all solid and professional, including lighting by Cecilia Durbin and sound by Katie Hopgood.
Michael Carnahan’s set design, with props by Pegi Marshall, combines the realism of an old-fashioned home with a fanciful stage-sized background that conveys symbols of the universe, time and and perhaps even, appropriately, astrological signs.
Director Vivienne Benesch has navigated this cast through the emotional highs and lows and abrupt changes of its decades-long calendar, an especially challenging task when a play is new, with no history to honor or rebel against.
Noah Haidle, the playwright, is a Grand Rapids native and former Detroiter. But his play is most relatable – whatever birthday you just celebrated, and wherever you’ve done so.