Susan Soon He Stanton’s Today is My Birthday presents the joyful opportunity to enter Yale Repertory Theatre’s space for the first time since 2020. And the elegantly minimalist set, by Bridget Lindsay, in which A-framed cedar beams extend over the stage and part of the audience, remind us of the first-class production values that Yale Rep regularly offers.
In a literal sense, those beams suggest that we are in the world of the play—under the same roof, so to speak, as the characters. It is disappointing then, that Ms. Stanton’s plot has disconnection at its center and that her characters are never under the same roofs as one another, even when to put them there would make perfect sense. Instead, they phone and text, leave voice mails and write emails. The unsurprising theme is clear: in our world of technological connection, we are more isolated than ever.
Twenty-something Emily Chang (Jeena Yi) has returned to her home in O’ahu, Hawai’i from her adopted city, Manhattan. A series of heartbreaks and disappointments has led her to hope that she can pull her life together amongst her parents, old friends, and familiar community. Unfortunately, Emily finds that home no longer feels like home, and the difficulties she faced in New York have followed her.
This could make a moving play, but Stanton’s use of technology—which, among other things, means ringing, beeping, and clicking every few minutes—distracts from whatever investment we might have in Emily’s plight, especially when we notice that often there’s no reason that Emily couldn’t begin to heal by simply being in the same house and room as her mother and father. Unlike her best friend, Halima (the often-hilarious Atra Asdou, expertly also playing four other characters), who lives back in New York, Emily’s parents are right there, yet we never see the three of them together.
Despite the central problems of the play itself, the afore-mentioned production values are a pleasure: joining the scenic designer are the expert Costume Designer, David Mitsch; the Lighting Designer, Nicole E. Lange, and the Hair Designer, Matthew Armentrout. Since actors play multiple characters, costumes and hair are crucial here. Voice and Dialect Coach, Cynthia Santos DeCure, and Movement Coach, Erica Fae also ensure that we always know who is who.
The acting, under director Mina Morita, is uniformly excellent. Emily Kuroda, who plays Mom in addition to five other characters, captures each one to perfection. Gabriel Brown embodies six characters beautifully, but he is most moving as Emily’s junior high “nemesis.” Chivas Michael goes from the hilariously flamboyant DJ Loki to the poignant, kind, and mature Troy, one of Emily’s ex-boyfriends who unwittingly both comforts Emily and exposes her wish to be as mature as he.
Francis Jue plays Emily’s father, and Dad is perhaps the most interesting, layered, and complex character we meet. As for Jeena Yi, as Emily, she is winning at times and her stamina is admirable: unless I’m mistaken, Yi never leaves the stage in this hour and forty-minute play with no intermission. However, Emily certainly is disconnected from others, and though it’s moving to see her try to assuage her loneliness, we aren’t privy to how high the stakes indeed are for Emily until the play’s very end, so it’s difficult to root for her. Yi plays what Stanton has written and what director Morita have given her; yet in a situation of life imitating art, she, the actor, like Emily, is hampered by the technologies that rule the plot.