Happy Birthday Dear Alice

A dark comedy by Irish playwright Bernard Farrell.

An aging mother faces uncertainty as her widely dispersed and dysfunctional family talks of placement in a nursing home.

May 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19 at 7:30pm

May 6, 13, 20 at 2pm

by Toby Tieger

Sometimes when I’m standing in line at the drugstore feeling tired and angry that the cashier is a moron, I decide to get my revenge on life by impulse-buying a Baby Ruth bar. Mainly because it’s there and I don’t like Baby Ruth bars.

My decision to go to see Happy Birthday Dear Alice was exactly like that. I made up my mind to go 15 minutes before it started because I was feeling crabby and it was happening, and I figured maybe it wouldn’t be completely terrible. I arrived late. The audience was small. I assumed my revenge had succeeded — this was clearly the Baby Ruth of theater.

Except that it isn’t. Happy Birthday Dear Alice is good.

It’s so good, if I can manage to find the time, I will go back to see it again. If I had the time (I won’t), I would go see it for a third round. It’s that good.

If you like theater at all, I strongly recommend that you go see this show.

The dark comedy by Irish playwright Bernard Farrell is about an older woman living alone whose adult children come to visit her once a year for her birthday. Every year they sing, they eat cake, and they try to shove her into a nursing home, mostly so that they can seize her house. It sounds like the outline for the next Tracy Letts play. Yet despite each child being more monstrous than the last, the play keeps its head above the murky nastiness of humanity by focusing instead on the flawed people who manage small acts of kindness.

There’s not a single bad actor in the cast. The story is uncomfortable in all the right ways, and precisely funny enough to almost offset the uncomfortable bits. The set is detailed, the costumes are on-point, the actors’ brogues are all close enough for my untrained ears. Like Kickshaw’s show Or from February, this play transcends being merely entertaining.

To describe the actors — please excuse me while I go check my thesaurus for synonyms for “talented” and “wonderful.” Ah yes, craft. When you go see this play, there’s an enormous amount of craft demonstrated onstage. Ellen Finch and Adrian Diffey are exceptional. The children, played by Hannah Niece, Eric Niece, Steven R. White, and Erin Hildebrandt, vary from decent to amazing. (And each one succeeded in making my skin crawl in slightly different ways.)

After the show, I had a chance to briefly talk with Adrian Diffey. He directed the show along with his wife Fran Potasnik and he also performs in it. He also produced it. And he co-designed the set for it. When we spoke, Diffey was, understandably, a little tired so it was a brief conversation, but what became clear very quickly was that this play was a project of love.

The theater company, Mind The Gap, originally began back in 2001 when Adrian and Fran were living in Luxembourg. When they moved to Michigan in 2013, their company moved with them. That explains why they often focus on fare that’s a little outside of the American mainstream, usually plays brought over from European playwrights.

I hope that the community of Ann Arbor will come out to see this show — beyond the value of supporting local theater, Happy Birthday Dear Alice is well-performed and very smart. I might see you there.

Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a building supervisor with the Ann Arbor District Library.


Mind The Gap’s ‘Happy Birthday Dear Alice’ explores Mother and “adult” children journey
by David Kiley
May 09, 2018

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Hardly anyone wants to end up in a nursing home. To be fair, there are “senior living options,” and there are “nursing homes.” Alice, in Happy Birthday Dear Alice, is being cajoled by her “adult” children to go into a senior-living facility so they can stop worrying whether she will fall or mentally decline in between annual birthday visits.

Not surprisingly, Alice is having none of it. She likes her simple home in Ireland where the play is set. And who can blame her for resisting the prods by her children who are as bossy and loathsome a pair of people as you will ever meet. They can’t really run their own lives very well. What business do they have trying to run Alice’s?

In this Mind The Gap production of the Bernard Farrell play, the widowed Alice, played wonderfully by Ellen Finch, is clearly not done being independent. Besides preferring her own home to places called “Sunny Acres” or “Chestnut Ridge,” she has a sweet spot for her friend Jimmy, despite his wife still being alive. Jimmy is played by Adrian Diffey, who brings old-school comedic timing to this part, a tender-hearted local handyman who is hard of hearing and blamed by some for the death of Alice’s husband and ultimately his own wife.

Despite the seeming bummer of a story line, Farrell keeps it fairly light and moving briskly by exploiting the inherent humor in harpy and annoying kids trying to boss their lovely, wise and engaging mother around. Hannah Niece as daughter Barbara manages to strike a delicate balance between someone we can view as being genuinely caring about her Mom and greedy daughter who’d like to get her hands on Alice’s house and move back to Ireland with her lummox of a husband, Cormac (Stephan R. White). Eric Niece as the son, Barry, plays the role to a high level of irritation, a middle-aged father who can’t seem to make an adult judgment. He has left his wife Valerie for British lassie Sandy (Erin Hildebrandt), who we come to view as perhaps the best of the lot of them. Even Alice likes her better than her own kids. Ms. Hildebrandt manages the slopes of Sandy’s arc in the story well–the poor sot who has cast her lot with the perfectly awful Barry and the indignant girlfriend who finally comes to her senses.

In a story like Happy Birthday Dear Alice, it is difficult to comprehend why on earth Barbara chose Cormac to begin with, or what Sandy was thinking when she decided to fall in with pathetic married Barry. But, alas, we all know people who make such mistakes.

Keeping with the Irish origin of the play, Diffey and director Fran Potasnik keep the story in the Emerald Isle. Diffey and Ms. Niece do the best jobs of delivering a decent Irish dialect.

Diffey and Potasnik are co-producers, and their set design works nicely in the intimate Yellow Barn space usually inhabited by Theatre Nova. They have created a believable modest kitchen and sitting room in a typical Irish flat, and gotten the dated nature of the appliances and kitchen products just right. Their attention to detail pays off. Alice doesn’t have much money, but she keeps her home clean and tidy and put together like a proper Irish lady. And everyone but her children seem to know that she is quite capable of remaining independent until she says otherwise.

Farrell’s play is a highly relevant slice of life whether you are watching this play in Ireland, Michigan, Italy or New Zealand. Whether it is time to take Mom’s keys away, or try and usher her into supervised living, these are debates and heartbreaks that take place the world over. His play and Mind The Gap’s production do an excellent job of finding the humor, irony, eye-rolls and sarcasm that usually infiltrates these situations.