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Today Is My Birthday by Susan Soon He Stanton (whose TV writing credits include Succession), now onstage at Theatre Exile, is not a pandemic play—it premiered in 2017. And yet it speaks so much to the pandemic experience that it feels like it is.
Stanton’s play follows Emily (Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters), a 29-year-old journalist who has just relocated from New York City to her native Hawaii. Alone in the apartment she isn’t sure she can afford, Emily spends much of her time on the phone. She dials her best friend in New York (Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez); various local friends whom she may not be seeing in person (all played by Joseph Ahmed); her parents (Daniel Kim and Twoey Truong), who make it very clear that they’d like to see her more now that she’s back home; and a couple of radio DJs (Rodriguez and Ahmed again) whose show she’s been hired to go on as a fake guest.
The speed with which Emily picks up her phone when she gets home (if she’s not already on the phone as she enters), and the way she almost always starts another call as soon as she hangs up make clear just how desperate she is for connection. But the fact that it is always a phone call, and never a visitor, shows how secluded she really is. Emily does have a life outside of her apartment—parties, a date or two—but we do not see any of this, only its aftermath, once she’s alone at home again.
Of the five ensemble members, Walters is the only actor who plays just one role. Ahmed plays eight, Kim two, Rodriguez five, and Truong four. They’re all fully embodied characters, although they might only have a few lines, and the cast does an admirable job ping-ponging between them.
Still, it’s Walters, as Emily, who is the heart of the show and the avatar for the audience. She mixes sweetness with impeccable comedic timing and an unexpected bit of pathos that brings meaning to Emily’s careful distance from friends and family. So many people care about her, and she talks to them all, and yet she is truly, relatably, alone.
That isn’t to say Emily is talking to disembodied voices on the stage by herself throughout the play. Each caller appears onstage, occupying space in Emily’s apartment, even if they’re thousands of miles away. While there is only one scene in which Emily is actually in the same physical space as one of the other characters, every conversation in the show is hilariously staged by director Cat Ramirez, and made possible by set designer You-Shin Chen, with actors tumbling in through cabinets and using the refrigerator as a doorway, sometimes sidling up to Emily even though we know—and she knows—they’re not really there.
In 2020, many people’s lives shifted to the phone, to Zoom. While it’s Emily who creates this distance between herself and the people in her life, everyone in the audience at Theatre Exile’s opening night could relate to the experience. While Stanton certainly didn’t set out to write a play about the pandemic, her lovely, funny script resonates in a way that it might not have three years ago.
What, When, Where
Today Is My Birthday. By Susan Soon He Stanton, directed by Cat Ramirez. $35. Through May 22, 2022, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 218-4022 or theatreexile.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and a valid ID are required to attend, and guests must remain masked throughout the show.
Theatre Exile is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms. Contact the box office for more accommodation info.
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