This story went to press as part of our May issue, before the coronavirus pandemic unfolded in the United States. Messing’s Broadway play, Birthday Candles, was originally slated to open in April but has now been postponed until the fall.

By Debra Messing as told to Samantha Simon
Updated Apr 14, 2020 @ 9:00 am
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Tim Soter/Redux Pictures

My upcoming Broadway play, Birthday Candles, by Noah Haidle, explores the preciousness of our time on earth. It follows my character, Ernestine, from age 17 to 107. Each scene is set on one of her birthdays as she repeats the act of baking her birthday cake from a recipe passed down from her great-grandmother. It’s a moving, poetic story that captures the beauty and pain experienced by a woman navigating the highs and lows of her life. When I first read the script, I simultaneously laughed out loud and sobbed.

Time passes very quickly in this play, and I was surprised by how emotional that made me once I stepped into the role. In one scene, my character is 18; in the next, she’s 41. I never leave the stage during the 90-minute show, and there is no intermission, so the transformation is almost entirely internal. I don’t have the support of outward illusion; I don’t have prosthetics or special makeup or wigs that an actor enjoys when doing a film. That is both the challenge and the thrill of doing this piece. Through experiencing Ernestine’s life passing in a blink, I’ve recognized how fast time is moving in my own life.

I think back to when I was 17. My dream was to be married by 22, have my first child by 25, and then do Broadway musicals. There’s an arrogance in adolescence; you think you have some semblance of control over how your life will unfold. Those huge plans you make when you’re young rarely, if ever, pan out. By the time I turned 25, I was not married. I did not have a child. My new goal was to do the great women’s parts in the most prestigious regional theaters in the country. But then after my first big break in Seattle, I was horribly homesick for New York. I called my agents and said, “Change of plans!”

As you grow up, you discover that your original dreams may never be realized. Change is inevitable, and it’s led to some of the biggest highlights of my life, from backpacking around Europe in college and discovering myself as an artist to falling in love and having my son. At the end of the day, I don’t think about the jobs or successes I’ve had, even though I’m profoundly grateful for all of them. Instead, I think about my friendships and the loves I’ve had and lost. I also think about the unexpected passing of my mother five years ago. She was 71, and because of that, I now consider the possibility that I will not live beyond that age. So, at 51, I’ve thought about the next two decades rather than the next six.

Messing with co-star Eric McCormack on Will & Grace. Photo: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

There is no discussion of beauty or what it means for your body to decline in Birthday Candles. We do, however, talk about it endlessly in our culture: how to live a healthy life, how to look 30 if you’re 40, which lotions or lasers work. It’s so much about the external, and as a woman, it’s exhausting. Stepping into a world where that’s not part of the conversation has been an incredible relief.

At this point, I’m interested only in being the best version of myself. I’m not trying to change in order to fit some idea of what beautiful is. When I was 30, I would see another woman on the red carpet and think, “She’s so much more X, Y, or Z than me.” Honestly, I never felt good enough or pretty enough or sexy enough. One of the greatest gifts of aging is recognizing the uniqueness of your own beauty. Any time spent thinking you’re less than someone else physically is just wasted time.

I’m much happier today than I was two decades ago, and this role has forced me to really contemplate what’s important in life and the meaning of my existence. I don’t want to wake up five years from now and realize that all I’ve been doing is working. Luckily, I have the benefit of hindsight. I’m at a place where I understand it’s important to have a balanced life, and I’m willing to say no to things that I was too scared to say no to in my 30s. I’m a fully formed woman who knows who she is and what matters to her. And what really matters to me is that I’m young at heart.

For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download April 17.