Platonic Theater Date Review: Detroit Public Theatre’s ‘Birthday Candles’ catches fire slowly, but burns bright

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The cast of Detroit Public Theatre’s world premiere production of Noah Haidle’s “Birthday Candles.”

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Saturday performance of Detroit Public Theatre’s “Birthday Candles” on May 26, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

After moments of extreme duress, people often say, “my life flashed before my eyes” – but in Noah Haidle’s drama “Birthday Candles,” now having its world premiere at Detroit Public Theatre through June 3, we instead bear witness to a highly compressed version of someone else’s long, eventful-but-ordinary life.

Specifically, Ernestine Ashworth’s (Claire Karpen) life. We first meet Ernestine on her seventeenth birthday, as her mom (Hallie Lee Bard, who plays multiple roles) is performing the ritual of making her daughter a cake, and also helping Ernestine run lines for her school’s feminist production of “King Lear.” Kenneth (Daniel Pearce), a nerdy neighbor boy smitten with Ernestine, drops by with a gift – the first of what will be a long series of goldfish – and a prom-posal, but after Ernestine turns him down, Matt (Michael Brian Ogden) drops by, causing Ernestine to visibly swoon, despite her stated commitment to live an unconventional life that will “surprise God.”

The scene ends with a audio cue, like a bell, that signals the passage of time to a near-future birthday of Ernestine’s, wherein she’s assumed responsibility for making her own cake in the exact way her mother did, citing the importance of this ritual. And this jump forward in time happens repeatedly throughout the 80 minute play (directed by Vivienne Benesch), so that we see Ernestine’s life play out in bursts as she gets married, raises a family, suffers loss and heartbreak, launches a business, re-discovers her independence, and experiences both profound joy and terrifying loneliness.

DC: So you’ve finally been able to visit the Detroit Public Theatre. Since it’s your first show there, what were your first impressions?

JM: I was glad I was coming with a veteran attendee, because I think I might have initially been confused about where to go – especially since other events were happening in the same building. But once we were in the right place, my first thought upon seeing the set was “Wow.” I liked the space a lot, and was impressed with the presentation before the show even got underway.

DC: I’ve heard a number of people say the same thing about their first-time visits there. With mobs of people funneling through the doors, it’s not obvious in which direction Detroit Public Theater patrons need to go when so many are heading the opposite way. But I also agree that from that point on, the powers-that-be do a fine job creating a very welcoming environment and a professionally run space. They’ve quickly become a force to be reckoned with – not only here, but nationally as well.

JM: Once again, I was going in with a completely blank slate, not realizing that DPT had commissioned the play – nor did I know anything else about it. What did you think of “Birthday Candles”?

DC: If you had asked me that question about half way through the show, you’d have gotten a totally different response. Playwright Noah Haidle is pretty damn sneaky in how he made us care more and more about his characters as the story moved forward.

JM: Yes. I mean, the basic structure of the show feels familiar. Seeing a life’s progression from youth to death by way of an annual event, like a birthday, is certainly something we’ve seen variations of before. And the device initially felt cloying to me. But I, too, fell more under the play’s spell as it progressed. There were still repeated, stiff bits of dialogue here and there that felt more “writerly” than organic, and that grated on me a bit, but overall, by the end, I’d become much more emotionally invested.

DC: To be honest with you, I didn’t see much of a raison d’être for this play until we were getting close to a quarter or a third of the way through, for precisely what you said. But then as the years and decades pass and “real life” begins to intrude more and more into their world, the show finally came together for me. I was hooked.

JM: That’s right on the money. I didn’t know why this particular story needed to be told for the first several scenes, either. It doesn’t operate with a clear narrative hook, so you just have to go on faith – which is fortunately, in the end, rewarded.

DC: I kept thinking to myself, “Where is this story going and why should I care?” – until it became obvious and I did. It just took a while to get there for me.

JM: Me, too. And it didn’t help matters that characters purported to be seventeen looked considerably older in those opening scenes, and I thought, “What’s with this casting?” Of course, it becomes clear quite quickly that they’ll be embodying these characters through long lives, but it was one more initial point of distraction when trying to settle into the play.

DC: Again, totally I agree. For example, when Claire Karpen first appeared as Hallie Bee Bard’s daughter, I wasn’t buying it whatsoever. That was too much disbelief to suspend – until it became clear what was going on.

JM: That’s just one of the inherent challenges of this script. There’s little you can do when characters are going to be spanning that broad a range of ages.

DC: Exactly. And that’s not to disparage anyone’s acting. Playing much younger or older than your actual age isn’t easy for an actor to do convincingly – especially without wigs and make-up changes. So because my eyes, ears and brain weren’t initially in sync with one other, it caused me to pause and take stock of the situation. It took me out of the moment a couple of times.

JM: I experienced that constant drumbeat of “Huh??” for a while. But on the other end, I was pretty damn wowed by the ways in which Karpen seemed to progress into old age before our eyes, with very few external props or costume changes.

DC: Again, I agree – although I thought she needed to slow down a bit more as she got into her late 80s. I felt she was a bit too spry for such an advanced age – and that’s coming from someone who watched his two grandmothers and a first cousin live into their early 90s. While they were still able to get around and live on their own, I expected to see a more distinct progression of the aging process towards the end of Ernestine’s life like I did theirs.

JM: Yes – again, tricky to keep the play moving at a reasonable pace and yet still convey the realities of aging. But I agree. She did seem rather spry for an octogenarian, but the addition of glasses, her expressions, the way her hair got a bit messier – all these things contributed to the illusion that I was watching a much older woman.

DC: And her voice. That sealed the deal for me. Yes, she COULD be spry enough physically to move like a 60 or 70 year old, but the subtle changes to her voice as she aged were perfect

JM: And she’s the only one on stage the whole time, anchoring the play. A really impressive performance overall. It’s got to take a LOT of focus, and be pretty draining, to make all those adjustments, and ride through that much life in 90 minutes each night.

DC: Yes, the only breaks she gets are the few seconds between scenes, and that’s all it takes for her to move into the next era of the story. It’s quite a masterful performance. Who else stood out in the cast for you?

JM: I adored Daniel Pearce’s Kenneth. Quirky and funny and so, so lovable. I love the humor he brought to the production.

DC: Yes, he was certainly the show’s comic relief. You couldn’t help rooting for the guy!

JM: What about you?

DC: In all honesty, I was impressed by the entire cast. I’ve been a fan of Chris Corporandy and Michael Brian Ogden since their Hilberry days, and their considerable skills are put to great use here, as they too age and/or become other characters. And Hallie Bee Bard brings such honesty to all of her roles.

JM: One of the heart-stopping moments of the show for me happened between Bard and Karpen, when Bard’s playing Ernestine’s struggling adult daughter. Karpen simply says, “Stay” with such quiet urgency that you can practically smell the tragedy ahead. Also, for me, Corporandy’s performance in one of the last scenes is just marvelous – funny and genuine and sweetly touching in its compassion. And Ogden has a thankless (and therefore challenging) role, in that Matt isn’t the most likable character.

DC: No, Matt’s not, and that ties into one of the show’s heart-stopping moments for me, which I can’t fully explain without giving too much away. But let’s just call it his final few scenes. I think that’s when the two women next to me started crying the loudest.

JM: It’s easy to vilify and dismiss Matt, but Haidle complicates that too-easy choice by making his path a bit bumpy, too. And Ernestine’s response to it, I think, is part of what’s likely to bring on those tears.

DC: True. The playwright is right on the money when it comes to married couples who suffer a tragic loss like Ernestine and Matt do; many break apart. So it IS easy to vilify Matt, but it’s not as simple as that. Men and women grieve in different ways, and if partners aren’t cognizant of what their other half is going through and what their other half needs, situations like theirs can happen.

JM: I’d argue, actually, that each individual person processes grief in his/her own way. It’s like the snowflake of the pain world, where no one’s experience is quite the same as someone else’s – which is yet another reason it can be so isolating and lonely. But something Matt says when the, uh, stuff hits the fan in his marriage to Ernestine seemed unnecessarily mean. Which is why I was ready to write him off. But Haidle didn’t let me do that.

DC: Sure, as individuals, yes we DO grieve in our own ways. But men don’t vocalize their feelings like women do. We’re problem solvers, and we want to fix things for our wives and mothers when they are hurting. And men need to FEEL wanted and loved – and for us, sex or intimacy is a way to provide comfort and to escape momentarily from grief. So when wives shut down emotionally or reject them altogether as Matt says Ernestine did, SOME men MAY respond to the warmth of another woman who will meet those needs. It may not be right, but some marriages never recover from a tragedy because of this. (pause) So enough about psychology. (laughs) Something else initially bugged me, but then I changed my mind about it. What did you think of the set – and the fact that the plot took place over the course of about eight decades and the kitchen never changes?

JM: I thought about that in passing, but it didn’t give me too much pause. If anything, I kept thinking about the many bowls they had back there to dump hunks of butter and cups of flour into.

DC: I kept thinking about the outdated colors of the appliances and how they’d never be able to find spare parts to keep them running so far into the future! (laughs) But ultimately, this wasn’t about appliances, set pieces or anything like that. It’s about the human experience and how we grow and change over a lifespan.

JM: Yes, I did find myself fixating at times on the stove and other parts of the kitchen, thinking about how they looked like something from a time capsule, definitely from another era, but not so out of the realm of now that they jumped out at me, either. That’s kind of an impressive feat. Just like the actors have to travel this decades-spanning journey, so do the set design and props. And I liked how a cosmic, astronomy-themed backdrop for this literal “kitchen sink” drama visually underscored the idea that this, when we take the long-view, is about how we spend our relatively short time on Earth. So some really thoughtful work by set designer Michael Carnahan and prop designer Pegi Marshall. You have to strike just the right balance, and they did a marvelous job.

DC: I agree. The set and props gave the production a consistency and a feeling of timelessness, much like the story itself. If there had been numerous set and prop changes, that would have stolen focus and dragged the pacing way down. I also thought Cecilia Durbin’s lighting design was quite interesting, although it took me a couple of times to realize what one special effect meant.

JM: Yes, that, to me, is part and parcel of getting settled into the structure of this show. These tech elements are used to help signal changes in time, but it takes a few reps for this all to feel natural and clear.

DC: It sure did.

JM: We haven’t touched on Shelby Newport’s costumes yet. What did you think?

DC: They’re character defining. And you don’t always see that done as sharply as it is here. And as an aside, when Ernestine first entered, I couldn’t help but think,” WOW! That looks new and freshly ironed.” Again, you don’t always see that throughout the industry here. Sometimes costumes look like they came right off the rack of the Salvation Army and onto the actor’s body.

JM: Not to put too fine a point on it, but dressing Ernestine in yellow seems a kind of theatrical highlighter. We know from the get-go that our eyes should follow her from scene to scene. And as with the set, the clothes have to somehow translate across eras – which they do. Again, this is something that demands a lot of careful thought.

DC: It does indeed, and Newport is totally successful in accomplishing that.

JM: Quick question: did you think of “Our Town” at all during that first scene? Or is it just me?

DC: Nope. I didn’t. It’s just you. (laughs) I think I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on.

JM: I think I was put in mind of “Our Town” because you’ve got this young woman with her family at home, and you’re hearing about her big hopes and dreams, even though she lands right where she begins. And, of course, you see how her life plays out, with the focus on these ordinary people that aren’t particularly special in any way. Wilder’s play was more about capturing a time and a town, but I still felt some homage being paid by way of the playwright’s approach and the play’s content. But again, that may just be me!

DC: No, I can see that. But now I’m going to ask you the million-dollar question: As this was your first exposure to Detroit Public Theatre, did it meet, surpass or fail your expectations?

JM: Trick question! Because I know and really respect the folks involved with the company, I had high expectations going in. But that said, the production totally met my expectations. I even liked little touches like the white balloons hanging in the air, around the perimeter of the set. The lighting played off them at times, and they reinforced the birthday thing that undergirds the show. Just a nice little added touch that I appreciated.

DC: As you know – since we’ve talked about DPT a bit over the past three years – I’m a big fan of the company and the women who lead it. They keep making smart choices, and they seem to be rewarded with a very loyal audience base. For me, the choice of “Birthday Candles” as their first commission was a gutsy move, given how atypical a script it is; it could have been a train wreck. But director Vivienne Benesch did a great job pulling its elements together, putting together the perfect cast, and finding the right groove to reveal the story’s touching, personal moments. And I have to say – to use an analogy related to the play – the ingredients she baked and served ultimately delivered its intended goods, as the two women next to me couldn’t stop crying towards the end of the show – and even a certain Cranky Critic will admit to being a bit choked up towards the end. And that doesn’t happen often.

JM: Yes, I thought it was impressive that during the course of this not-that-long show, I went from skepticism to being moved. Part of that, I think, stems from the fact that this is a show not about happy or sad endings – or even endings, really. It covers some really joyful and painful things, so that it’s not tied up in a pretty bow. I really appreciate how Haidle handled the end. Because it was more truthful, frankly. There are moments when we’re surrounded by loved ones as we age, and there are moments we feel existentially alone. Too often, the too-easy wrap-up gnaws at me, so I admired the playwright’s choice to complicate the conventional paradigm.

DC: You nailed it, Jenn. And I think that’s why we both grew to like the show so much: It became more truthful as the plot and years went by.

“Birthday Candles” plays through June 3, 2018. For showtime and ticket information, visit detroitpublictheatre.org.

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