A lifetime on stage: ‘Birthday Candles’ stars grow with characters

Chautauqua Theater Company Guest Artist Alex Weisman, in the role of Kenneth, hugs Guest Artist Ceci Fernández, in the role of Ernestine, during the final dress rehearsal of Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles Friday afternoon in Bratton Theater.
Sean Smith / staff photographer
Chautauqua Theater Company Guest Artist Alex Weisman, in the role of Kenneth, hugs Guest Artist Ceci Fernández, in the role of Ernestine, during the final dress rehearsal of Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles Friday afternoon in Bratton Theater.

In the blink of an eye, the main character in Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles ages from 17 to 107 as the audience drops in on birthdays throughout her life.

For Chautauqua Theater Company Guest Artist Ceci Fernández, playing Ernestine Ashworth has been a learning opportunity as she grows in the role and follows Ernestine’s journey.  

“I think she makes the small seem epic,” Fernández said. “She makes the simple seem spectacular.” 

To Fernández, Ernestine represents the women who helped raise her and who helped her family feel safe and protected.

CTC’s production of Birthday Candles, directed by Arya Shahi, began previews Friday and has more preview performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Bratton Theater. It will officially open Tuesday.

While growing up in Miami, Fernández said she developed a passion for theater at a young age when her Girl Scout troop leader recommended she try acting. As a child, she would stand up on tables and recite episodes of her favorite ’90s television shows, which sparked her love for telling stories.

She got her undergraduate degree at New World School of the Arts and has performed on stages worldwide. One of her first professional acting jobs was in another one of Haidle’s plays, Mr. Marmalade, which makes her time with Birthday Candles even more special.

Becoming Ernestine, who begins the story describing herself as a “rebel against the universe,” has been an opportunity for Fernández to make the role her own and reflect on her own life. 

“We’re very similar,” she said. “We both love Shakespeare — have a nerdy obsession with Shakespeare — we both love poetry and we both end up falling for the nice guy.”

As she portrays 90 years of Ernestine’s life, Fernández channels the generations of her family and the women in her life as inspiration. She believes this play has found her at the right time.

“I’m watching my mother age, and I’m watching the world through her eyes in many ways; this play has been a way for me to reflect on my mother’s life, my on grandmother’s life, and on the matrilineal line of my family,” she said. 

As her character experiences tidal waves of love and loss, Fernández said aging through Ernestine is an opportunity to see how she herself might deal with situations unfamiliar to her, or that she’s unsure how she would handle. Through Birthday Candles, she feels Ernestine’s strength and wisdom are offering her some guidance.

While she doesn’t do much aging physically on stage via makeup or wigs, Fernández settles into Ernestine’s mature age by beginning to slow down and change her voice.

“Like the accumulation of a life, by the end, I’m tired — like if I was tired at 80,” she said.

In Birthday Candles, Ernestine follows her mother’s tradition of baking a butter cake every year on her birthday, and Fernández bakes an actual cake on stage right before the audience’s eyes.

“I think it’s going to be cool,” she said. “It’s a simple enough recipe and it’s not so hard. I’m very lucky because I have a lot of cast members and everybody puts a little scoop of something in.”

CTC Guest Artist Alex Weisman, who plays Ernestine’s nerdy childhood best friend and nextdoor neighbor Kenneth, said his character has a charming nature with a lot of heart.

“I think of Kenneth as a lighthouse for her,” he said. “Maybe a little off in the distance, maybe a little inaccessible, not the most attractive thing to go to, but this little glimmer of light that’s always shining and that’s always going to help her find her way.”

An actor who has played roles on Broadway and on TV, Weisman grew up near Fernández in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, but they hadn’t met until this project. In their roles, they have developed a special bond that connects them on stage.

Weisman began his professional career as a baby model and went on to act in commercials. He grew up with health issues and had  open heart surgery at the age of 17, which he said changed his outlook on life. 

“I sort of woke up from that, started my junior year of high school with this new lease on life and sort of unapologetic desire to pursue joy and things that matter to me,” he said.

From that moment on, he decided to study theater in college and went to Northwestern University in Chicago to become a full-time actor.

He said he believes Birthday Candles is a relevant story of how we fill our lives with meaning and who we surround ourselves with.

“I think Chautauqua audiences are going to be able to relate to every single moment of this show,” he said. “I think people are going to walk into the theater and witness one woman’s life, and there are elements throughout all of it that are so specific to Ernestine, but also feel so universal.”

Fernández agreed.

“It’s watching someone discover their second act,” she said. “I think it will hopefully be recognizable and, I hope, inspiring. It is for me.”

Tags : Alex WeismanBirthday CandlesBroadwayCeci FernándezctcErnestine AshworthMr. Marmaladenew play workshopnoah haidletheater

The author Aden Graves

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