Birthday Candles A Look at a Life Well Lived or Was It?

Birthday Candles A Look at a Life Well Lived or Was It?

In the career of my soul, how many times have I turned from wonder?….Ernestine Ashworth

Susannah Flood, Enrico Colantoni, Debra Messing, Christopher Livingston, John Earl Jelks, Crystal Finn Photo by Joan Marcus

Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles, now playing on Broadway is about a life fulfilled. In the play now playing at American Airlines Theater, we journey through Ernestine Ashworth’s (Debra Messing) life by dropping in on her birthdays, starting the year she turns 17. She and her mother make a traditional cake with “Eggs, butter, sugar, salt. The humblest ingredients. But when you turn back and look far enough, you see atoms left over from creation. Stardust. The machinery of the cosmos is all here.” This cake baking ritual is repeated through out generations. It felt in a way like I had stepped into Jenna Hunterson’s childhood from Waitress for a minute.

Debra Messing, Christopher Livingston, Susannah Flood Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022

Birthday Candles ends when Ernestine takes her last breath at 107.

Ernestine wants to “rebel against the universe,” travel and “surprise God”, but settles for a conventional life of marriage and kids. In the meantime the love struck boy next door Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni), waits for her, until she finally comes to her senses. His hope is fulfilled, as is the audiences. Her husband Matt (John Earl Jelks), after 35 years of marriage cheats on her after her daughter Madeline (Susannah Flood) dies. Her son Billy (Christopher Livingston) gets dementia and she outlives everyone.

Susannah Flood, Debra Messing Photo by Joan Marcus

The dialogue is like the poetry that gets trapped within our heads or the unspoken words we long too express and in the end it is heartbreaking to out last everyone you love.

Susannah Flood, Debra Messing Photo by Joan Marcus

The birthday’s go by fast and slow, as a bell signifies the passage of time, during which we meet Ernestine’s loving mom, troubled daughter and vivacious great-granddaughter all terrifically played by the wonderful Susannah Flood. Her nervous troubled daughter-in-law Joan and forthright granddaughter Alex played by Crystal Finn. Jelks and Livingston offer stability and subtle layering. For laughter and warmth there is Enrico Colantoni as the man who waits for what he wants, always believing. Messing, is charming and likable as she conjures up the emotional pathos of  loss, grief, sadness, disgust, awe, love and compassion. And then there is a goldfish named Atman, which in  Sanskrit is a word for the divinity within yourself. The fish gets 103 incarnations.

John Earl Jelks, Debra Messing Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022

Director Vivienne Benesch, doesn’t always give the audience enough pause to navigate the playing field. She smartly has cast Flood and Colantoni who know the territory.

Christopher Livingston, Debra Messing Photo by Joan Marcus

Christine Jones, set design brings us to a universe that is constant and ever changing. I especially loved the ending effects which combined the talents of lighting designer Jen Schriever

[0166] Enrico Colantoni, Debra Messing Photo by Joan Marcus

In the end Birthday Candles is asking us to “risk our heart and find our place in the universe.”

Birthday Candles: American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd St. until May 29th


Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret, opera and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She has a screenplay and a TV show in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She is a proud member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle and was a nominator. Email:

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